Telehealth visits surged 50 percent in March alone and are set to surpass one billion by year’s end, with 900 million relating to COVID-19. The successful transition from in-person to audio/video interactions with patients shows strong potential to increase access and satisfaction over the long term. A Deloitte consumer survey shows 57 percent of consumers are willing to try telehealth, and 77 percent of those that have tried telehealth report high levels of satisfaction.
As consumers gravitate toward virtual healthcare services—both out of necessity as well as convenience—healthcare providers are finding that the switch to online-only interactions presents unique engagement challenges.
Even as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) lifted restrictions on telehealth services to meet the needs of seniors and those in rural communities, modifying operations and practice patterns to support telehealth requires a very different approach to connecting with patients. It demands that organizations adjust administrative and clinical workflows to ensure a highly efficient, highly coordinated experience.
Just one in four providers had a virtual care program in place in the weeks prior to the pandemic, according to research from Forrester. In the face of rapid change, many providers are struggling to implement the necessary technology, and recent statistics around implementation make it easy for us to forget that telehealth is not a new concept - it’s been around for decades. In fact, my company, InformedDNA, has been delivering our genetics expertise exclusively through a telehealth model since 2007, at a time when many didn’t even know it was a possibility. The good news for healthcare organizations and providers is that this transition has been made by others, and successfully created a platform of collaboration and communication across healthcare verticals.
In my experience, there are four key considerations for organizations making the switch to telehealth that can make the transition much more seamless and less overwhelming.
Provide telehealth training for providers. A telehealth program is only as strong as the training clinicians receive around engaging patients virtually. Here are ways to teach providers how to effectively engage patients virtually:
● Establishing the purpose of the virtual visit at the outset
● Asking open-ended questions (“How does this information make you feel?”)
● Paying attention to body language during video visits and seeking to draw the patient out when signs of emotional or physical discomfort are observed
It’s also important to provide ways for providers to support each other in a telehealth environment, such as by sharing best practices or providing time for informal interaction. This is especially true in a virtual-only organization or in scenarios where in-person interactions, such as during a public health crisis, are not possible.
Establish a quality assurance model for telehealth. Look for ways to engage clinicians and/or administrators to offer feedback on telehealth consults, especially when providers are first becoming acquainted with delivering care virtually. This could include having providers remotely observe each other’s telehealth visits as they take place or randomly recording visits for quality review. Once a provider has established telehealth expertise, make sure quality assessments continue to take place at predetermined intervals, and discuss the results during annual reviews or—when constructive feedback is needed—as close to the time of the encounter as possible.
Go beyond tech enablement in telehealth design. The right approach must be supported by two items: technology that supports high-quality interactions, such as seamless connectivity and strong audio capabilities, and standardized processes. Consider the following:
● Capturing information from the patient prior to the visit to ensure the provider has as much relevant information prior to the visit as possible
● Supporting appropriate clinical documentation during the visit and afterward
● Creating a well-defined schedule for telehealth visits, taking into account the need for after-hours care and on-call support
● Defining processes for laboratory testing and prescription orders that result from the visit
● Establishing privacy protocols that promote adherence to HIPAA and prevent cyber breaches
By focusing not just on the platform for virtual visits, but also the administrative and operational support needed, healthcare organizations will be better positioned to deliver telehealth efficiently and consistently. Doing so strengthens the patient and provider experience.
Implement processes that support continuity of care. Successful, coordinated care depends on the sharing of information between providers. Make sure details regarding the visit are immediately and securely shared with others who are involved in the patient’s care, such as between specialists and primary care physicians. Make it possible for the other provider to contact the telehealth provider by phone if there are questions about the consultation or the recommendations made. In some instances, three-way telehealth visits between the patient, a primary care physician, and a specialist may be warranted.
Making the right moves for virtual care
Gaining proficiency in telehealth takes time, but with the right guidance, processes, and support, virtual care physicians can continue to make a difference in patient care and outcomes. Establishing a virtual model that positions healthcare providers for success while paying close attention to the patient experience will be critical to meeting demands for care during the current health crisis and beyond.
Jana Pruski-Clark is Sr Vice President, Clinical Services, at InformedDNA, the nation's largest independent provider of expert genetics services.