What Is Telehealth?


Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have heard that health care centers around the country are increasing their telehealth (or telemedicine) services. As we continue to socially distance to protect one another from this virus, telehealth can be a vital tool for health care systems to ensure that everyone can get reproductive health care safely and when they need it. But what exactly is telehealth?

Telehealth has long been used as a technology to facilitate access to health and medical information, education, and services. This includes utilizing text messages, emails, specialized software, and video-conferencing. Clinicians can use these platforms to exchange health information, provide services to patients, or to obtain recommendations and advice for patient care from other clinicians. While telehealth is all-encompassing, telemedicine specifically refers to interactions involving clinical care –though these terms are often used interchangeably.

Telehealth has been an incredibly important tool for expanding health care access, including specialized care, for rural and otherwise medically underserved communities, helping reduce health disparities for many populations. For example, many low-income women tend to delay or forgo necessary health care due to challenges navigating transportation, childcare, or other logistics. Telehealth can bridge this access gap for many communities.

Telehealth plays an important role in timely, safe access to contraception and abortion care. It facilitates patient-centered counseling, assessing risk factors, and sending birth control prescriptions. The TelAbortion program works in 13 states to provide telehealth medication abortion under a special Food and Drug Administration (FDA) waiver for research. They connect pregnant people seeking abortion to video consultations with certified clinicians, then the abortion pills are mailed directly to patients. However, not all reproductive health services can easily happen through telehealth. For example, some people may want their contraceptive implant or IUD removed (and may not feel comfortable with IUD self-removal). Also, telehealth for medication abortion care is effectively banned in 17 states.

Increasing telehealth visits for reproductive health care and other services can prevent people from congregating in health care centers, protecting patients and health center staff, while allowing those who need in-person care to obtain it safely. Check out our COVID-19 Resource Page, which contains free tools on telehealth to support providing reproductive health care in this new environment.

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