By Elizabeth Gallagher, CRO, Lineate.
According to survey data from the “2020 Cox Consumer Pulse on COVID-19 and Telehealth,” only 28% of consumers reported their primary care doctor offered remote services before coronavirus. But after the pandemic started, that number quickly grew to 68%, and continues to climb. It’s the old quote “necessity is the mother of invention,” where creative efforts come about to solve a pressing need. The pandemic is the “great accelerator” for transformative change, whether it’s ecommerce, remote work, or telehealth services.
The underlying benefits of expanded telehealth are driving its broader acceptance, a trend that will continue past the pandemic:
- Doctors can see more patients over video compared to in-person. There’s no need for them to move from room to room or potentially between floors of a hospital. They can have more time to meet patients, review treatment options, and present the best care regimens.
- Telehealth can reduce costs for both patients and providers. For example, a telehealth program in Houston dropped ER visits by 6.7 percent, which resulted in more than $2,000 in savings for the system for each incidence. Patients also eliminate commute times and are less likely to need time off work for telehealth appointments.
- Telemedicine improves access to care, which is vital during COVID-19 and provides long-term benefits for disabled patients, rural, and older patients.
- Preventive care is easier through telemedicine, and this type of care can produce better health outcomes.
The Industry Challenges Remain
The first barrier to telehealth was adoption. Would patients embrace remote visits? Would they see the value and results they desired through virtual means? With COVID-19, that barrier has gone by the wayside, as it’s now a necessity, and soon will become a norm.
For healthcare providers, there’s still some roadblocks for widespread telehealth usage. Data security is always a concern, with virtual video calls bringing on fresh worries about HIPAA compliance and information sharing. When a hospital or care center offers a new kind of service, there’s issues about how that fits into the overall IT apparatus. There’s little uniformity in the software structures of these organizations, so there’s a lot of work on the backend that needs to happen to accommodate a new model like telehealth. It’s more involved than launching a Zoom. It requires systems to talk to each other, from EHR platforms to insurance check systems.
Other industries are more streamlined in terms of the age and structure of their solutions, and healthcare providers will need to push for modernization and uniformity to realize telehealth’s long-term benefits. Taking this on often requires the assistance of a software developer like Lineate that has considerable experience customizing healthcare systems, from teleconferencing to home health monitoring devices and scheduling.
Easy to use telemedicine platforms connected to other systems will also help the equity gap for the industry. Inequity in terms of access to laptops and Wi-Fi is a major pain point for educational software, and the same dynamic is in place for healthcare. Healthcare providers and governmental agencies will need to work together to address the access problems for low-income and marginalized populations and use technology and other resources to bridge the gap.
Providers Need to Scale Quickly
Given the expected demand and the high stakes involved with providing care during a pandemic, how can healthcare providers learn and adapt? One key area for enabling scale is to improve scheduling. Providers need to use software tools for dynamic frictionless scheduling, so it’s as easy as possible for every patient to use, whether they’re a 25-year-old tech expert or a septuagenarian who struggles with texting. Improved scheduling systems can also prioritize visits based on the urgency of care, if there’s a referral involved, insurance claims are pending, and other parameters.
The scheduling process should also include some back-end intelligence, using prompting questions to ensure the patient flows to the right doctor. And, the system can use the patient’s identifying information to perform a health insurance check, so any coverage problems appear forth immediately, instead of during a Zoom call.
Healthcare providers must improve telehealth services with a robust UI experience. The network infrastructure needs to manage many requests and process appointments, changes, and questions efficiently. During the early stages of the pandemic, too many healthcare sites and systems failed due to demand. And with the restrictions lifted on interstate licensing restrictions, physicians met with patients from around the country, raising new challenges for scheduling for different time zones and complying with state-level regulations.
Technology Foundations Need Improvement
To scale for telemedicine’s explosive growth, healthcare providers need to their underlying technology. For example, healthcare providers can invest resources in improving their site’s search functions, an often-overlooked feature that provides significant benefits. Improving search involves back-end technology that uses intelligent filtering, synonym and colloquialism recognition, type-ahead functions, and other tools that recognize doctors will search differently than patients. Improving the accuracy of doctor and patient inquiries is an important complement to offering telehealth, as both sides will further rely on online resources to answer their questions. So, healthcare organizations cannot just focus on their actual videoconferencing service.
Providers will need to refine their teleconference offerings over time, by recognizing telehealth consultations and interactions take multiple forms. This could include e-consultations where a provider discusses issues with another remote provider, remote monitoring through connected devices, and the “doctor’s visit” patient and physician meetings that replicate in-person visit. Additionally, there are interactions such as chat sessions between patients and live agents, which will require EHR platform connectivity, so the agent has the necessary information about the patient’s history and conditions.
This complexity in the forms of communication are an important lesson for providers to take a more holistic view of telemedicine and take steps now to improve technology. And this tech-first focus pays dividends for providers, not just patients. When healthcare providers have ways to engage patients and fellow physicians and staff digitally, then there’s more revenue from these interactions. It prevents some of the problems with patient care such as the correlations between “no shows” for an initial appointment the patient not engaging with the provider at all.
After the pandemic eases, demand for telemedicine will only increase. Market research firm Frost & Sullivan predicts sevenfold increases in telehealth usage by 2025. That’s an astounding growth rate that might undersell the coming adoption for telemedicine as patient acceptance rises and providers learn to scale and refine their offerings. With the right technology solutions in place, healthcare companies no longer need to implement initiatives for either the user experience or profits. Now there’s win-win with better patient care, more revenue, less churn, and simpler more connected systems.