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Tips for Expanding Telehealth Services

Telehealth interactions could exceed 1 billion by the end of the year, according to Forrester Research. Now that providers and consumers have experienced telehealth’s convenience and potential for enhancing efficiency, connecting specialists in remote locations, and bringing healthcare professionals and patients together, virtual visits are on track to become an integral part of healthcare.

Patients are a major force driving the demand for telehealth services. According to a national survey conducted by The Harris Poll and commissioned by Change Healthcare, 89% of consumers said COVID-19 made telehealth “an indispensable part of the healthcare system,” 65% plan to use telehealth more after the pandemic, and 78% said the pandemic showed the extent to which more telehealth options are needed.

The following tips can help organizations expand and implement successful telehealth programs on a larger scale.

Assess and prioritize opportunities for expansion.With COVID-19 safety protocols in place and patients once again seeing their doctors in-person for more appointments, organizations and individual clinicians can begin the important work of defining the optimal mix of office and virtual visits for specific patient populations. Important questions include: Which health conditions and needs are best handled virtually? What worked well for clinicians and patients across specialties during the first few months of the pandemic? Where were the glitches?

Providers are finding that some specialties, such as behavioral health, are a natural fit for virtual visits, while others, such as orthopedics, may be suited to more of a hybrid of in-person and virtual care.

In addition, some organizations have recognized that telehealth can help win competitive advantage when they provide a valued service that other organizations lack. For example, one institution gained market share by offering tele-neurology for patients with multiple sclerosis.Successful telehealth programs can also support goals around population health management and reducing disparities by increasing access to care in remote communities and for patients for whom travel is difficult.

Understand clinicians’ concerns. The best opportunities for expanding telehealth services aren’t always related to specialty. Some physicians are more technically adept than others, and some physicians simply adapt more easily to connecting with patients virtually, regardless of specialty. Recruit clinical staff who show a knack for and ease with telehealth to assist in developing new services within their specialty and in sharing their experiences and advice with colleagues.

Some physicians fear they won’t be able to develop rapport with patients through videoconferencing, but then discover that the technology doesn’t interfere with relationship- and trust-building at all. A 2018 survey by Deloitte found that physicians tend to feel good about virtual care technologies once they use them, and large proportions (58–69%) said they expected to use them more. Some physicians report that video visits enable them to interact with patients in a more thoughtful and focused way because there are fewer distractions during the videoconference.

Other clinicians have found that telehealth works best for them when they incorporate virtual visits into their practices as a scheduled part of their day, rather than moving back and forth repeatedly each day between modalities.

Monitor reimbursement trends and updates.The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) paved the way for widespread telehealth adoption during the pandemic when it announced that it would pay the same rates for telehealth visits as for in-office appointments for many healthcare services.

In October, CMS expanded telehealth services that are reimbursable during COVID-19. Cardiac rehabilitation, pulmonary rehabilitation, and certain neurostimulator analysis and programming services are among the services added to the list. The agency is also providing additional support for telehealth services to state Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) programs.

Educate patients.Although telehealth services will never completely replace the need for in-person appointments, healthcare organizations are discovering that patients who use telehealth tend to become repeat users once they recognize that they don’t have to take time off work and they can have an effective interaction with their providers through their tablets, laptops, or mobile phones.

Create a simple guide for patients that covers how to log on to the platform and how to configure their webcam to make sure they can clearly hear the physician and that the physician can clearly see and hear them. Include a reminder to find a private, quiet location for the visit. Ask patients to make a list of symptoms, track pertinent health data, and have a list of current medications available for the appointment. Develop a brief script for office staff to use to introduce patients to a new telemedicine service, explaining, in brief, why the physician would like to schedule the appointment as a telehealth visit.

Telehealth is ripe for expansion beyond the pandemic. The current high interest in telehealth services among patients and physicians creates an excellent environment for providers to start exploring ways to leverage this technology on a larger scale.

To see how Caregility helped expand telehealth for two of its clients, see our Resources page.

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