How telehealth is changing the lives of chronically ill patients
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Living with a chronic disease isn't just physically taxing; it takes an emotional toll as well. Millions of older Americans live with a chronic illness such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes or heart disease, and many suffer through their day-to-day care routines alone.
For Vickie Stark, a COPD patient who is living on her own, daily life can be incredibly stressful. Stark's condition requires daily monitoring to ensure that her symptoms stay manageable and do not lead to complications that require hospitalization. And she is not alone in her situation.
According to the National Council on Aging, approximately 92 percent of seniors have at least one chronic condition, and 77 percent have two or more. Additionally, chronic diseases account for 75 percent of the money our nation spends on healthcare, yet only 1 percent of healthcare dollars are spent on public efforts to improve overall health.
While there is a wealth of research and commentary about the challenges that chronic disease presents to the nation's healthcare system, there has not been as much coverage about the costs to patients living with chronic illness. According to Stark, the cost of living alone with COPD is not simply financial; it's also emotional.
"I was scared all the time," she said. "I would be short of breath, my pulse would go down, and I'd have panic attacks and have to go to the ER to get help."
Fear and anxiety are common for those who are managing chronic illnesses. When anxieties escalate, frequent trips to the hospital to alleviate concerns can also be common. Lack of understanding about medication adherence, self-care and symptom management often lead to emergent medical issues and hospitalization for patients with chronic diseases.
Fortunately for Stark, her physician recommended a telehealth program to help her monitor and manage her symptoms in the comfort of her home, and the program has made a world of difference.
Stark's telehealth device is set up in a convenient location in her living room, and it monitors her blood pressure, pulse oximetry and other vitals daily. These readings are sent to a clinical team, who are able to immediately follow up with her to ask questions and provide feedback on any changes she needs to make in her care plan. Stark loves that the telehealth team works with her physician as well and that the process is so seamless.
Stark has now been using telehealth for more than a year and a half, and her whole outlook on life and her disease has changed.
"I don’t go to the hospital now because I'm able to check my vitals daily, and I’m not afraid," she said. "I could barely function before, and now I feel safe. [Telehealth] is like my right arm."
But it's not just the telehealth devices that she loves; it's also the people behind them.
"Being able to get a hold of someone, being able to know someone will walk me through the processes so I feel confident using the machines, and knowing that if anything changes it shows up and they will call immediately and make sure everything is OK has been the biggest benefit of using telehealth," Stark said.
"They are very good to me," she says. "It's a one-on-one situation, and I always speak to a person as opposed to a machine. The staff is wonderful and completely thorough and answers all my questions. They are never in a hurry, never too busy for me. It's a comfort to know that they are watching out for me. It's like having a whole bunch of friends around all the time."
Asked if she would recommend telehealth to others who are in a similar health situation, Vickie is quick to say that she already has.
"This is something that all older Americans need," Stark said. "It's my life saver."
There are numerous studies available that outline the effectiveness of telehealth in terms of reducing hospitalizations among patients, lowering healthcare costs, improving patient self-care and more, but the true benefits of telehealth are seen from the patient's perspective.
The progressive nature of chronic illnesses means that tracking symptoms on a regular basis is crucial. For Stark, and for millions of Americans living with chronic illnesses, the ability to effectively manage their own care and live life free from fear is what makes telehealth a true necessity.
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