Telemedicine generally refers to the use of information technologies and electronic communications to provide remote clinical services to patients. Examples of telemedicine are the transmission of medical imaging and video consultations with patients and specialists. Telemedicine is the first generation description of the clinical application of technology to medicine.
As the application of technology to health care has evolved, the term “telehealth” has become the second generation of terminology and describes the evolution of health care technology beyond the delivery of clinical services using remote means. Telehealth encompasses a broader collection of means or methods to enhance care delivery and education. While the terms are often used interchangeably, telemedicine and telehealth are not precisely the same thing.
In 2014, the Department of Health & Human Services Department sought to clarify the two terms in a post on HealthIT.gov:
“Telehealth is different from telemedicine because it refers to a broader scope of remote healthcare services than telemedicine. While telemedicine refers specifically to remote clinical services, telehealth can refer to remote non-clinical services, such as provider training, administrative meetings, and continuing medical education, in addition to clinical services.”
The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines telehealth as the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support and promote long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration. Technologies include videoconferencing, the internet, store-and-forward imaging, streaming media, and terrestrial and wireless communications.
According to The Center for Connected Health Policy, “telemedicine” often refers to traditional clinical diagnosis and monitoring that is delivered by technology, while “telehealth” describes the wide range of diagnosis and management, education and other related fields of healthcare.
In 2014, the journal Telemedicine and e-Health published a study that found seven different definitions of telehealth in use in federal agencies alone.
“Although many definitions are similar, there are nuanced differences that reflect each organization’s legislative intent and the population they serve,” the study concluded. “These definitions affect how telemedicine has been or is being applied across the healthcare landscape, reflecting the U.S. government’s widespread and influential role in healthcare access and service delivery. The evidence base suggests that a common nomenclature for defining telemedicine may benefit efforts to advance the use of this technology to address the changing nature of healthcare and new demands for services expected as a result of health reform.”
Telemedicine is a component part of telehealth, but telehealth goes beyond traditional telemedicine. For now, in most cases, the context in which the terms “telehealth” and “telemedicine” are used will be the key to understanding the intent of the word. Usage of the terms will continue to evolve and I predict that the broadest possible term defining the application of technology to health care will survive the test of time.