Key Questions Before Partnering With Telehealth Specialty Providers

Jan. 18, 2019
The California Telehealth Resource Center (CTRC) has come up with 20 questions clinics should ask specialty telehealth providers when vetting different offerings

For primary care clinics, especially those in rural areas, establishing solid relationships with organizations that provide specialty telehealth services can vastly improve the number of services they can offer their patients. But building and maintaining those relationships so that they make sense financially and in terms of quality and patient satisfaction takes a lot of work.

I hadn’t realized how complex that relationship-building could be until yesterday, when I got a chance to hear an online presentation by the California Telehealth Resource Center (CTRC) detailing 20 questions clinics should ask specialty telehealth providers when vetting different offerings. The speaker was Kathy Chorba, CTRC’s executive director, who has 20 years of telehealth program development experience, beginning with establishing and growing the UC Davis Telemedicine program, incorporating 80 sites and 35 specialties, and directing the Telemedicine Learning Center. 

Chorba began by noting that the work of assessing these partnerships should begin only after you have done a needs assessment, identified the kinds of specialties you want to engage (dermatology, psychiatry, etc.), and the volume you expect to generate. You should also have established physician buy-in and identified your telehealth team. Once you have done these things, then you are ready to start establishing partner relationships, she said.

I won’t go through all the questions Chorba suggested clinics ask of specialty provider groups, but just the following sampling of them might help those of us who are not in the telehealth trenches everyday better understand some of the logistical issues involved.

• What specialties are available through this provider group? Chorba noted that some specialty provider groups offer one specialty only (such as behavioral health) while others offer a wide variety of specialties.  She added that some clinics prefer the “one-stop shop” for all their specialty needs, because it simplifies the contracting, credentialing, referral process and workflow, while other clinics prefer to shop around and find the best price for each specialty.

• Does the provider group contract with your payer(s), bill you by the hour or block of time or patient seen? Specialty provider groups use different payment mechanisms, and you have to find one that is mutually beneficial. Chorba added that before you negotiate, you should know how many referrals you think you will have for each specialty and how soon you will be able start. “This will help determine the financial model that fits your program,” she said.  The speciality provider will know if they have capacity.”

• What are the rates for live video and store and forward and are they the same for adult and pediatric? Rates will vary depending on the specialty services needed, as well as volume and modality. Rates for store-and-forward specialties such as dermatology will typically be lower than live video specialties, and new patient appointments may be more expensive than follow-up appointments, Chorba said. Also, rates may vary according to the volume of patient referrals you anticipate sending to the specialty group. Each specialty also tends to have a different timeframe for visits. Dermatology visits may take 20 minutes, while psychiatric visits take an hour. “One rule of thumb is 40 minutes for new visits and 20 minutes for followup visits,” she said. Clinics have to structure their appointment strategy to afford the specialists’ time. “When does a $250-per-hour specialist cost less than a $200-per-hour specialist? When the $250 specialist can fit more patient visits into that hour,” she said.

CTRC offers clinics a sustainability worksheet to help them understand all their costs involved in purchasing blocks of time from telehealth specialists. Initially they may expect to lose some money because all the patients are new and the visits are longer, but as you move into the growth phase, and the specialists are seeing more follow-up patients, you can fit more patients into an 8-hour day. “The bottom line is you are not losing money anymore,” Chorba said. About seven months into the program, you should hit the maintenance phase, where you are keeping your patient no-show rate down and overall costs down.  

• Does the specialty provider group have referral guidelines for each specialty? Besides specifying the time required for new and follow-up patients, these guidelines also state what information or tests are needed prior to the consult (labs, chart notes, etc.). Chorba added that the tests required could be unavailable or too expensive for your patients or not covered by their health plan. “Just knowing the referral guidelines and tests rquired prior to a consult,” she said, “may help you decide that is a provider you don’t want to work with.”

• What level of technical support will the specialty provider group provide? While most primary-care clinic sites have some technical support staff available, few clinics have staff that are able to troubleshoot telemedicine video and peripheral equipment and/or broadband connectivity issues. Some specialty provider groups provide a basic level of technical support or troubleshooting assistance in order to make sure services are provided as scheduled. Chorba said clinics should make clear what type of support it can provide.

This is just a subset of all the questions Chorba raised with webinar attendees. It helps explain why Federally Qualified Health Centers and other small clinics need consulting help to get their telehealth programs up and running. In closing she mentioned that the CTRC is now working on its next set of guidance on how to keep that relationship with specialty providers healthy once you have chosen a group to work with. With so much emphasis on the potential for telehealth these days, it is important for all of us to remember that the transition to telehealth and the hand-offs between providers involves a lot of complexity!

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