Telehealth — also called telemedicine — can be an effective and convenient part of health care for people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a chronic inflammatory illness that affects joints and other areas of the body.
People with RA typically require ongoing monitoring and care by rheumatologists throughout their lives. The American College of Rheumatology has determined that telemedicine has the potential to expand access to medical services and improve care for people with RA.
Telehealth can provide easier access to care for people who live in remote and underserved areas. Online doctor visits can also be a convenient alternative to routine in-person appointments when the condition is stable. Telemedicine can be effective for follow-up consultations to monitor symptoms, side effects, treatment options, and rehabilitation for improved range of motion.
First and foremost, it’s important to know that telehealth services are not intended to replace needed in-person care. Telehealth encompases a range of medical services that can be provided at a distance through electronic communication and information technology, like computers, electronic notepads, tablets, and cellphones. Clinical services may feature audio, video, electronically shared files, text, and wearable devices that can monitor symptoms and send data back to health care providers. Telehealth and telemedicine are the most common terms for clinical services provided through electronic devices, but terms like teleconsultation, telemonitoring, and televisit may also be used.
Many people have used telemedicine for the first time this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite its growing popularity, a number of misconceptions persist.
While some people may feel uncomfortable with technology, the fact is that technology is increasingly a daily part of most people’s lives. According to the Pew Research Center, 81 percent of Americans now own smartphones, and nearly 75 percent own personal computers.
In the U.S., people are now using video chat features — like FaceTime, Zoom, and Skype — in record numbers. Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, video chat usage has risen by 38 percent. Now 6 in 10 people in the U.S. rely on video chat services for work or to connect with friends and family. There are many user-friendly video chat platforms available for medical visits. In some cases, health care providers may use a service you’re already familiar with.
Video chat is often no more complicated than making a phone call. If you have never used a video chat platform, ask a friend, family member, or colleague to show you how easy it can be. You can also ask someone to do a test with you the day before you have your first telemedicine appointment, to be sure you’re feeling confident.
For chronic diseases like RA, telemedicine can actually improve care by facilitating more frequent follow-up consultations. It can also support careful home monitoring of symptoms and home treatment plans. A number of assessments can be made through a telehealth visit, such as:
Studies that have assessed the value of telemedicine have found people with RA benefited in three main areas — remote assessment of disease activity, monitoring of treatment, and self-management programs that can be delivered electronically. In each of these areas, care was found to be effective and people with RA reported satisfaction with telemedicine services.
By supporting home treatment programs, such as exercises that can be demonstrated remotely, telemedicine can also help improve outcomes. A study over three months with 10 RA participants assessed the value of telemonitoring of kinesiotherapy — a type of movement therapy for rehabilitation. The study revealed that telemonitoring of self-managed kinesiotherapy programs resulted in significant improvement in hand functions.
Telehealth supports in-person care rather than replacing it, and can actually expand options for managing RA. Telemedicine can provide greater access to doctors and other medical professionals, as well as specialists who may not be available where you live.
For many people with RA, pain and reduced mobility can make doctor visits difficult. Medical appointments are also burdensome for people who live in rural areas or places that are far from medical centers. Full schedules with work, child care, elder care, or school may also hinder access. When visits to a doctor’s office are difficult to manage, health care can suffer. Telehealth has the potential to help fill that gap.
Some of the ways telemedicine can expand care for people with RA include:
As telemedicine expands care options, it also can save money and time. A study with almost 1,400 people with chronic pain found telemedicine visits saved an average of $22 for gas and parking per visit, and more than an hour in travel time. Savings in money and time can be considerably higher the farther a person lives from their health care provider. Additional costs that may be saved include child care and lost work hours.
Everyone is naturally concerned about privacy when it comes to personal health issues, health records, and doctor-patient confidentiality. Cybersecurity for telehealth is a reasonable concern, and the health care industry is taking precautions to make sure telemedicine can be safe and secure.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has responded to concerns about security and electronic protected health information, including telemedicine, as these services have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. HHS believes safeguards are available for telemedicine, and urges health care providers to use third-party platforms that encrypt transmissions of data and communications.
Despite the medical industry taking serious precautions to protect privacy, breaches of security can happen. Before transmitting highly sensitive information, images, or documents, you might want to call your provider and discuss your concerns about security. Phone calls and encrypted texting platforms are sometimes the safest option.
Telehealth opens new avenues of communication in health care. To be truly effective, it’s essential to communicate openly and honestly with your doctor. Telemedicine relies on people reporting symptoms and concerns in a straightforward and detailed way. Telehealth will never replace the need for in-person visits with doctors, but it offers exciting new opportunities to enhance care.
At myRAteam you can join a community of almost 137,000 people who are managing RA. Join a conversation, ask questions, and share experiences about telehealth.
Have you had a virtual visit with your doctor? How has telehealth changed your health care regimen? Share your experience in the comments below, or go to myRAteam now and start a new conversation.