By Chad Reid, vice president of marketing and communications, JotForm.
When it comes to telehealth, COVID-19 has been something of a game-changer. The popularity of telehealth has been growing steadily, but patients generally viewed it as a complementary service to their regular in-person care. Until recently, that is.
As the pandemic continues to rage across the nation, telehealth has become a necessity. According to early data, telemedicine firms have seen as much as a 50% increase in the volume of visits during the pandemic. It might seem tempting to view that statistic as a temporary spike, but it reflects a trend that was already gaining momentum.
This increase in demand has put a strain on many institutions whose telemedicine solutions were either nonexistent before the pandemic or not designed for such heavy use. It has also thrown the flaws in existing systems into plain view, making it clear that there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
Wherever you might have been on your telemedicine journey pre-pandemic, your position has probably changed. Regardless of past experiences, it’s time for the healthcare industry to figure out how to make telehealth work moving forward.
Navigating Telehealth Benefits and Challenges
Telehealth has the potential to revolutionize access to healthcare. In theory, it lets people in rural areas reach specialists anywhere in the country and expands affordable care options to low-income patients. Unfortunately, that potential hasn’t always become a reality. Historically, these groups have been the least likely to take advantage of all that telemedicine has to offer.
That may be changing, though. The pandemic has not only smashed through many of the existing barriers to telehealth adoption — making it more widely available and used — but it has also pushed insurance companies to increase acceptance of these visits.
Done right, telehealth services can increase access and improve quality of care through remote monitoring and more frequent check-ins. Telehealth can also save everyone money — particularly the patients with chronic conditions who account for 90% of annual healthcare costs. To achieve these benefits, though, telemedicine has to be implemented in a purposeful, cohesive way that protects patient privacy and encourages care continuity.
The HIPAA regulations surrounding secure telehealth video and chat apps, while currently waived in light of the circumstances, will most likely be reinstated post-pandemic. This means that offices and hospitals will need to have another solution on standby — if they don’t already — to continue offering the same level of convenient care. The same is true for currently modified insurance practices. The future of telehealth relies on healthcare providers setting up solutions that will not only weather the current storm but also stand the test of time.
How to Implement Best Practices in Telehealth
How can healthcare providers make sure their telemedicine services are built not only for today but also for tomorrow? How can even smaller facilities overcome barriers to telehealth adoption and truly figure out how to make telehealth work? While it’s not possible to eliminate all technological hiccups and every last bit of red tape, there are three simple steps providers can take to tighten up their telehealth offerings going forward:
- Figure out what you need.
Not every doctor’s office is starting from the same spot. Figure out the resources you need to accommodate your current capacity. Where are your gaps? Do you have enough equipment and staff? What technology do you already have, and who on your team knows how to use it?
Take a step back and assess what your patients and staff members need to maintain best practices in telehealth. If your patients are primarily senior citizens, you might want to focus on phone calls rather than fleshing out an online patient portal. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, so it’s crucial to understand what fits you and what you need to make it work.
- Rethink how you keep records.
It’s important to maintain diligent electronic records for telemedicine services for the same reason it’s important to keep them for in-person visits. Your telehealth system should be structured to support a robust, secure electronic record-keeping system.
As health information technology becomes a bigger part of running a healthcare practice — especially when it comes to secure telehealth and electronic records — understanding the security and privacy issues surrounding telehealth will only become more critical. For the many providers who don’t necessarily have the budget to build out a whole new department to handle this, several funding resources can help.
- Get regular feedback from patients.
Even the best-laid plans are going to have blind spots. Since one of the most significant barriers to telehealth adoption is getting patients to use it, your patients are best suited to help you see where things aren’t working.
Make sure to check in regularly — during visits as well as afterward — to see how your patient’s remote experience went. Dive into specifics. Ask about how easy it was to use the app, whether another form of communication might be better, and if there was anything that could have been done before the visit to improve the overall experience. At its best, telehealth should work in tandem with how you already operate; it should aid you rather than taking away from the quality of your care.
The healthcare sector has a bumpy road ahead. While it might be tempting to just stick with what’s working until the pandemic passes, take this opportunity to dig into your telehealth system and figure out how you can make it work in the post-pandemic world.