The EHR and the Future of Telehealth

By Khalid Al-Maskari, CEO and founder, Health Information Management Systems (HiMS)

Khalid Al-Maskari

Telehealth has been a hot topic during COVID-19, but the technology powering virtual care consultations has been around for more than half a decade. A survey from 2014 found that 90% of healthcare organizations had already begun to implement telemedicine programs six years before the novel coronavirus pandemic.

But telehealth struggled to become a primary method of care delivery due to the negative perception of it within the health care industry. Telehealth was viewed as a claims deflection model that only treated low acuity patients, and this perception created a negative stigma for medical professionals regarding billing for telehealth solutions.

The same study found that 41% of health care provider respondents were not reimbursed for telemedicine services, and 21% reported receiving lower rates from management companies for virtual care. Health care professionals felt they were doing the same amount of work for little to no compensation, and because telehealth was typically reserved for low acuity patients, they had an exceedingly high no-show rate.

COVID-19 and the Explosion of Telehealth  

The need for socially-distanced health care launched telehealth to the forefront in 2020. The pandemic forced the industry to quickly adapt telehealth for a broader spectrum of patient care, and claims models have since enabled clinics to bill virtual appointments like in-person visits.

This adjusted approach to telehealth also opened the door to potentially life-saving benefits, such as reserving in-person care for the highest acuity patients, increasing the scope of provider networks outside of a patient’s immediate location and allowing patients to receive quality care in the comfort of their homes.

According to research published by Advisory Board, doctors spend 37% of their day on administrative tasks, which shifts their attention away from patients and onto their technologies.

Because of this, it’s critical for telehealth solutions to be mindful of the pre-existing administrative burden on doctors and health care staff. Telehealth should simply be another vehicle for providing care—not an unnecessary hindrance.

With the use of telehealth, patient data management becomes particularly important. Clinicians can provide telehealth services to anyone in any state they’re licensed to practice in, but this can turn out to be a disservice if data isn’t integrated properly.

Providers who are seeing a patient for the first time through telehealth need to make sure they have access to the patient’s up-to-date medical history. By having an interoperable network of health care technology, telehealth providers can make more accurate diagnoses, collect data and bill accordingly while providing the highest level of virtual ongoing care.

Virtual Health Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All

Telehealth is a method of care delivery that has near limitless potential, but for it to be used most effectively, it must be interoperable with the clinic’s existing EHR. Not all EHR telehealth functionalities are created equally.

Some EHR-compatible telehealth tools add to organizational complexity by making data hard to access, being poorly customizable, or coming with a steep learning curve. It’s one thing to say an EHR has telehealth capabilities, but it’s important to evaluate whether the EHR is flexible enough to offer a user-friendly experience. Before settling on a telehealth tool, providers should ask themselves whether the EHR’s approach to telehealth is making virtual care easier, or if it’s taking valuable time away from virtual and in-person patients alike.

It’s also important to point out that virtual meeting solutions aimed at businesses aren’t an effective way to deliver telehealth. The basic versions of these services are not HIPAA compliant, making the bulk of medical discussions out of the question.

It’s one thing for single-provider clinics that needed a quick telehealth service to purchase a virtual meeting license, but costs can add up quickly for larger clinics in need of more advanced virtual services. On top of that, patient data still needs to be entered into the EHR after the visit ends. Although this might be the most cost-conscious way to deliver virtual care, it’s far from being effective.

Care coordination is also a challenge for providing telehealth services through certain platforms. There’s currently no way for virtual patients to talk to a front desk staff member to schedule appointments, fill out forms and complete any post-appointment billing. Telehealth wasn’t designed to mirror physical visits, but interoperable technology can help streamline the process.

The Future of Telehealth

The widespread adoption of telehealth is still in its infancy, but its impact will remain long after the COVID-19 pandemic. While the primary use-case for telehealth is currently to help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, another use that’s gaining prominence is for clinical trial applications.

Virtual clinical trials can significantly broaden the number of eligible participants, and they can even make it easier to engage patients. With an interoperable solution, clinical trial managers can best collect and record data to aid in the approval of potentially life-saving drugs.

More advanced solutions will also allow health care providers to track patients through multiple modalities and facilities. For example, if a patient enters urgent care, providers should be able to easily view the patient’s records kept by their primary care doctor and keep viewing them all the way through any follow-up appointments. As clinics start to place a stronger emphasis on interoperability, they’ll be able to make better use of patient data to deliver superior care.

The future of telehealth will largely be dictated by how a clinic’s EHR can support and enhance the capabilities of virtual care. The use of robust telehealth solutions is helping physicians be more efficient, track better care outcomes and communicate more effectively with patients and each other. As the health care landscape continues to evolve, telehealth will continue to gain prominence as an essential element of care delivery.

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