I’ve been thinking a lot about telehealth since the coronavirus took hold. I’m not a medical professional, but having advised companies in this industry and as a consumer, I have observed how healthcare providers have slowly adopted and used telehealth in increasingly innovative ways over the past decade.
However, what was once hyped as a digital disruptor within healthcare has taken much longer to provide its expected operational benefits and improved customer experience. Had adoption happened quicker among practices and insurance companies, we would be in a stronger position to combat this global pandemic. We now find physician practices suspending in-office visits and patients limited in travel due to local restrictions, which should drive up demand for telehealth services in the immediate term. In fact, the pressure to implement telehealth services now to combat this pandemic could be the tipping in telehealth adoption. Once patients try it, they won’t want to return to the old way of receiving care.
But even in ordinary times, telehealth aligns well with the shift towards an outcomes-driven care model and need for operational efficiency to remain profitable, as well as the rise in consumerism. So the patient and caregiver in me is baffled and frustrated that medical professionals and insurance companies aren’t as prepared as they should be for the surge in demand from increasing numbers of patients who are ready for telehealth.
Uncover the underlying problem with telehealth adoption
I believe part of the reason for slow telehealth adoption is outside of providers’ control. In years past there was a lack of clarity on how clinical coding should work and what the reimbursement model looks like – but that has largely been addressed and regulations are becoming more and more supportive. Recently, regulators have expanded Medicare coverage for telehealth and relaxed the HIPPA requirements around it. Technology solutions are also expanding to accommodate telehealth. There are now myriad options for the more “entry-level” services, from video consultations all the way through to wearables and remote patient monitoring.
So, if the regulatory and technology complexity is being addressed, why are virtual consultations not more common? And why is remote monitoring of patients with chronic conditions not an industry standard? Digging a level deeper, there are a few questions and concerns you will commonly hear:
Will it work?
Integrating telehealth into existing offerings will be expensive and disruptive. It is hard enough to deliver quality outcomes in a cost-efficient manner. This seems like an expensive technology investment with an unclear ROI.
Will it work in my practice?
Even if I did invest in it, trying to train staff how/when to use it and figure out how to incorporate this into workflows will be too hard. We have spent years on the transition from paper-based to digital charting. It works well enough. Let us just focus on spending time with patients, not learning new technology.
Will patients actually use it?
And most simply, it will be a waste. Our patients won’t use it; they want to see us in person.
Knowing what telehealth implementation involves, and having heard all of those reasons, I can’t help but wonder if telehealth has been made out to be more complicated than it actually is. Are the perceived barriers even greater than the real ones?
Debunk the perceived barriers to adoption
If we look at the arguments against telehealth adoption by medical providers, insurance companies, and even patients a little further, they tend to lose their fire.
There is a justified fear that trying to implement the technology component of a telehealth offering will mean hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) in upfront technology costs and expensive ongoing fees. Many organizations went through something similar when moving to Electronic Medical Records (EMR) and do not wish to repeat it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Offerings can be designed from the start to integrate into your existing patient charting and billing workflows. The technology should not be driving how you conduct your business and forcing changes in workflow, but rather integrating into existing workflows and helping you deliver the best possible service to your customers. While this should be based on customer demand, your operational fit is imperative. What it should not be driven from is your technology solution—there are enough readily available options that the business should be defining the technology and not the reverse.
If you are going to use telehealth you must use it well. As a patient, it is very frustrating when you do a virtual conference with a doctor and then the next time you see them it’s as if the interaction never happened because your charts were not updated. A new offering like virtual consultations or remote device monitoring needs to be adopted by not just the physicians, but by the entire staff. When the receptionist is called about a question on the app, their reaction cannot be “We have an app?”, or even worse, “Ugh, that thing.” The staff need to understand the purpose it will serve and why it is so important.
Implementing telehealth doesn’t take as long as you might think. It can be as easy as picking up the phone and calling a patient to screen their symptoms. Of course, there are many elements that go with that—how you will schedule and bill for that time are among them. But you can start small, possibly by adding phone calls or building a telehealth solution around a single health-related issue. Many already have remote phone check-ins for heart patients on blood thinners, for example. Then you can build video capabilities and an administrative system around all of it in a matter of months. After that, you can increase services to include remote monitoring—whatever the priorities and needs your patients and practice value most. In short, if you want to implement telehealth to help with this crisis, it is still possible.
Before the coronavirus, several recent articles and studies had cited that when patients are aware of telehealth offerings they want to use them. But the biggest problem was that they were not aware telehealth existed or how to use it. In fact, in one recent survey, 66% of consumers said they would use telehealth services if offered, yet only 8% had ever had a video visit with a doctor. Since the pandemic broke out, consumers are seeking these solutions out. There really is no better time to start planning and implementing a solution, because demand is only going to grow. However, it’s not something you can just slap on a website and tell people to sign up for. It will be a learned behavior. You need to let patients know it’s there and why they should care. The good news is you do not need to implement every bell and whistle to get a good start. Start small and with what you think would resonate best. Before you try to jump to remote patient monitoring, consider something as simple as the ability to do video. Think big. But start small.
Meet your operational goals more easily through telehealth
Telehealth has long passed the time where it would offer an overnight disruption to care delivery. However, it has powerful benefits for both providers and consumers. It delivers contact-free consultations and assessments—a powerful way to triage care in the midst of a viral crisis. With the increasing shift towards consumers partnering in their care and outcomes-based reimbursement models, it offers a pragmatic way of furthering both. It lets providers fill gaps in their schedule and decrease the overhead cost associated with running their practice. It may also allow them to bill and be paid for services they were not previously, such as answering emails and returning calls to perform consultations. Finally, consumers love it due to its convenience and potential to offer a deeper, more personalized level of care. Best of all, there has never been a better time to attain buy-in for telehealth services.
Change is scary. But before you write off telehealth as not aligning with your organizational goals, just think about whether your concerns are real or perceived. Taking a pragmatic approach may allow you to start in very small, manageable ways and you will soon be on the way towards a dynamic new offering. As tragic as the coronavirus crisis is, it provides an ideal opportunity to introduce simple phone and video conversations and grow from there. Chances are, this crisis will change the way we manage care forever.
If you’re interested in learning more about the advantages of telehealth for both providers and patients, download Celerity’s latest solutions brief. It contains practical tips on how to drive adoption or expansion of your telehealth offering in months, not years—and without spending millions.