Muddling telemedicine and telehealth, Chapter 2

Editor Donna jumped on her terminology hobbyhorse [stabled with Editor Steve’s, TA 24 July] with spurs on when she read the Examiner coverage (for a general audience) of a panel at last week’s ‘World Congress on Telemedicine’ in Boston. Now Roy Schoenberg, MD, CEO of American Well and a panelist, states that “telemedicine’s ‘little sister’, telehealth, that will be the disruptive technology.” Except that what he means by ‘telehealth’ is American Well, which is, by standard international definitions…you guessed it, telemedicine. Not a whisper of vital signs monitoring (telehealth) here.* The reporter here is not at fault. Both Dr. Schoenberg’s recent byline for Becker’s Hospital Review and the AW website refer to American Well as ‘telehealth’, so it is consistent.

Ed. Donna has already stated the reasons why she believes terminology misuse is detrimental to the field as a whole [TA 25 June] but I think that Ed. Steve’s conclusion to ‘Shining a light into the dark terminology stable’ article, quoting The organising vision for telehealth and telecare: discourse analysis, tells us the consequences:

“Introduction of telehealth and telecare is hampered because different stakeholders hold different assumptions, values and world views, ‘talk past’ each other and compete for recognition and resources.”

The pity is that American Well seems to be successful in doctor-patient consults for topline companies such as BCBS Minnesota and Optum/UnitedHealthcare and RiteAid. Certainly to the extent that we cover telemedicine, Ed. Donna has been cheered to see their payer side business models as an example to others. But to see their appropriation of ‘telehealth’ to describe their service used repeatedly, and from the top down, one suspects with fair accuracy that it must be a deliberate communications strategy–moreover, a presumptuous and potentially harmful one to others in the field, which are not even their competitors.

* Definitions available on both our sidebar (the essentials) and the etymology expanded in ‘What is telecare‘, where Editor Steve defines and sources most terms in common use.