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5 Steps to Move Past Ad Hoc Implementations and Address Haphazard Telehealth Deployments

In 2020, the pandemic led to a telehealth boom – but a messy one. The speed with which the pandemic shut down the country forced providers to stand up telehealth platforms by any means necessary – often without strategy or structure. One doctor quoted in an August 2020 Beckers article said, “some health systems are discovering they have 20 to 30 different telemedicine services that have permeated their physician base.”

This is an essential problem to solve for hospitals, health systems, and individual providers because although the pandemic may be waning, the telehealth tsunami is not.

Why telehealth is here to stay

Patients like telehealth

Citing a telehealth survey, Beckers noted that 80 percent of patients said they were likely to continue using telemedicine even if they didn’t use it before the pandemic. In a recent survey by the COVID 19 Healthcare Coalition, patients of all age groups indicated that telehealth helped them overcome challenges like transportation and exposure to disease, and that it helped them reduce costs related to their visit and time they had to take off work.

“Given this favorable, early experience with telehealth,” the authors wrote, “we anticipate that telehealth will continue to be an integral component of healthcare in the months and years to come.”

Physicians like telehealth

A February 2021 article in npj Digital Medicine reported that about one-fifth of physicians plan to use videoconferencing and telehealth tools “significantly more” than they did before the pandemic. The authors of the article expect that number to grow as a wave of “digital-native physicians” enter practice. Recent AMA surveys the article cites illustrate practitioners’ interest in integrating technology into their care approaches – in particular “augmenting virtual care with additional health technologies, including remote monitoring, digital devices, and artificial intelligence.”

The telehealth business is booming

The pandemic opened the floodgates for the industry in 2020, and Arizton Advisory & Intelligence sees no signs of that trend slowing. The company forecasts average growth of 30 percent per year through 2025, when its total value will rise to about $25 billion. “A whole industry is taking shape that will require new skills of healthcare providers and generate jobs more broadly, including customer care positions, quality assurance, sales roles, IT support, and in the engineering and design of software and hardware,” wrote Kathleen Winston, Dean of the College of Nursing at the University of Phoenix in a March 2021 Physicians Practice commentary.

Fixing telehealth’s haphazard implementation

So, what can be done to fix haphazard telehealth deployments so patients and providers can fully reap its benefits?

Improve telehealth products and process

Health systems, hospitals, and even individual practices need to conduct a baseline assessment of their telehealth situation. There’s significant concern not only about the number of videoconferencing platforms used by providers but also their security. Products like Zoom, FaceTime, and Google Meet work but the relaxed regulations that allowed their use during the pandemic likely won’t last beyond it. Other concerns include fragmented patient data, inconsistencies in record keeping, and platforms that are too complicated for average patients to use. It’s crucial for healthcare executives and IT departments to assess their current situation and implement both platform and process improvements.

Improve physician performance and patient experience

Once the technology is in place, health systems should upgrade the video, audio, and lighting equipment available for practitioners to use. Then, they need to train physicians to perform better on camera. “Healthcare agencies can’t simply give their staff Zoom accounts and hope for the best,” Winston writes in Physicians Practice. “They need to provide training on skills needed to get the most out of the new medium. Healthcare education institutions will need to review and revise their curricula to provide the necessary competencies for telehealth.”

Build out the telehealth infrastructure

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced an investment of more than $42 million to build and improve the infrastructure needed to bring telemedicine to underserved rural areas. Technological infrastructure upgrades – particularly increased access to broadband – headlined many U.S. governors’ annual “State of the State” addresses. According to a GovTech roundup of the speeches, broadening access to telehealth was specifically mentioned as key driver for new investment in technology infrastructure.

Enshrine telehealth-friendly regulation

One of the biggest obstacles to greater telehealth adoption is licensing restrictions that prevent providers from practicing across state lines. Revisiting those restrictions will be a priority for new Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, who explicitly mentioned support for telehealth expansion during his confirmation hearings. Several bills, including the bipartisan Protecting Access to Post-COVID-19 Telehealth Act of 2021, have been proposed to address barriers such as geographic and originating-site restrictions on the use of telehealth in Medicare. None, however, have passed yet.

Reimbursement parity for telehealth services

And then there’s the elephant in the room. Federal and state public health emergency declarations prompted health insurance plans to overhaul their payment policies for telehealth. But there’s no guarantee that insurers will continue to offer such payment parity once the public health emergency is over. Some states – such as Georgia and California – have set equal base rates for telehealth and in-person care. It remains to be seen whether others follow that path, and how health insurance plans will respond to that action.

Learn more how Caregility can elevate your telehealth game

It’s easy to see how health providers of all sizes might be overwhelmed by the frenzied implementation of telehealth over the past year. If your organization needs help introducing or elevating your telehealth capabilities, Caregility consultants can help.

Please contact us today for more information.

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