Telehealth is a promising way to reach and support people with dementia and their caregivers at home and also a way to help insure people have access to much-needed care and education.
Families can use a computer, tablet or smartphone to set up remote appointments with their physicians and also join online health education programs to learn how to improve well-being and quality of life. Users can also wear devices that can track changes that signal health and/or safety issues.
Telehealth is especially beneficial to those with limited mobility and those living in rural areas. Even in populated areas, however, individuals with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers can have difficulty leaving home for appointments or lack adequate transportation to access the care and support they need. And, dementia expertise might not be easily accessible.
“Telehealth interventions offer a method of delivering dementia care that may be easier for people with dementia and their care providers who find it difficult to leave their home," said Lisa Onken, director of the behavior change and intervention program in the National Institutes of Health Division of Behavioral and Social Research. "With telehealth, health care providers can meet people where they are in their homes.”
NIH-supported researchers are currently exploring ways to use different types of telehealth technologies to support dementia care and make dementia care more widespread.
Researchers at the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco have developed the Care Ecosystem — a collaborative dementia care program delivered over the phone. The Care Ecosystem is a model of dementia care designed to provide personalized, cost-efficient care for people with dementia and their caregivers. The model includes care team navigators, clinicians with dementia expertise and care protocols. Several U.S. health care systems and clinics have begun to adopt or pilot the Care Ecosystem dementia care model, including the Ochsner Brain Health and Cognitive Disorders program at the Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans.
Insurance providers — including Medicare, Medicaid and many private insurers — are beginning to cover telehealth services. However, telehealth policies vary widely from state to state and insurance coverage policies differ, so it’s important to check with insurance providers directly for the latest information about coverage for telehealth services.
By reaching those affected by Alzheimer’s disease, telehealth technologies are helping to address health inequities for families that live in rural areas or who otherwise cannot access care easily. Challenges do exist: lack of internet service; ability for individuals to understand technology; lack of an available computer or phone.
Telehealth services won’t completely replace in-person visits to the doctor or other health care professionals, but these services may provide a vital link for added support and expertise for all affected by Alzheimer’s disease, wherever they live.