An emerging trend in healthcare is that of virtual healthcare. Virtual healthcare puts a new spin on the doctor-patient relationship and changes the way in which individuals can receive diagnoses and treatments: rather than visiting a doctor's office, patients can use ICTs to contact and communicate with doctors from the comfort of their own homes to receive medical help. The use of technologies to relay medical information from one site to another for the purposes of healthcare delivery or health education is also sometimes referred to as "telehealth" or "telemedicine." For the purposes of this section, we will continue to use the term "virtual healthcare."
Healthcare via teleconferencing or videoconferencing
The most popular avenue through which virtual healthcare is used is teleconferencing or videoconferencing. This modality features a two-way interaction between a clinician and a patient via a live audio or audiovisual technology. Teleconferencing has increased in popularity due to the rise of services and "apps" such as Skype or FaceTime, computer programs that allow for video phone calls between Internet-connected devices. Some CCRC residents may already have these programs downloaded onto their personal computers or smartphones. Programs such as Skype and FaceTime can be especially exciting for older adults in CCRCs because they provide a means for facility-bound residents to get in touch with friends and family who may live far away and whom they may not be able to see regularly or easily. Using the microphone and camera installed in the computer or smartphone, CCRC residents get to talk to and see their loved ones on a computer or device screen. Being able to communicate with friends and family can help promote psychological well-being and overall quality of life for residents because they may feel less lonely and more connected with their family and friends through the use of these applications.
The teleconferencing devices and applications often used by healthcare professionals in visiting with patients and delivering healthcare remotely are similar to popular products such as Skype and FaceTime in that they allow for two-way communication; however, virtual healthcare typically entails a wide variety of additional features that enhance doctor-patient interaction. As an example, there are an increasing number of medical devices that can plug directly into a computer or mobile phone so that a doctor may assess vital signs of a patient remotely. Consider a CCRC resident who is in need of a routine checkup; however, due to circumstances (such as a lack of transportation), the resident cannot get to the doctor's office. If the CCRC has the necessary equipment, it is possible that the resident can go to an Internet-connected computer and, using the plugged-in vital signs monitoring device, get a measure of temperature and blood pressure, and even record self-assessed measurements of pain; because this device is connected to an Internet-enabled computer, the information can automatically be sent to the doctor, who can then use it to assess the resident's health and recommend management techniques and potential lifestyle changes. The use of devices such as a vital signs monitor to collect and transmit health data is often referred to as "remote patient monitoring."
An advantage of virtual healthcare is that the technologies used need not be restricted to doctor-patient interactions, but can be opened up for use between patients and caregivers, caregivers and doctors, patients and social workers, and so forth. An example can be seen in a study conducted by Czaja and colleagues (Czaja et al., 2013) that evaluated the use of a video-based intervention wherein videophones were installed in the home of dementia caregivers that provided tips in caregiving and allowed for video conferencing between caregivers and interventionists as well as between caregivers and other caregivers. Technologies like these, when designed properly with the needs of the user taken into careful consideration, can be easy to use and provide a number of benefits. In the case of the intervention study, Czaja and colleagues found that videophone use by their study group (which consisted mostly of caregivers with lower socioeconomic status and limited technology experience) helped alleviate caregiver distress. Despite the limited technology experience of the participants in this study, Czaja and colleagues also found that the caregivers found the videophone relatively easy to use. As with any technology, ease of use will be important for both CCRC residents and others, such as caregivers, who may also have need to use it.