The Future of Telehealth

By Bill Flatley, senior service delivery manager, OST.

Bill Flatley

When the global pandemic hit the United States in March, droves of people who normally would have visited hospitals or clinics for routine care and appointments stayed home. Whether out of a fear of being contaminated or due to adhering to the stay at home mandates, sick visits to hospitals and doctor’s offices declined for many individuals who instead opted for telehealth appointments.

March and April saw a peak in the telehealth surge, with a slowdown period going into June and July as more states opened back up. Despite this slowdown, telehealth is here to stay with a higher utilization than any pre-COVID-19 times. Whether it’s hospitals or family practice clinics, many have discovered that there could be better care pathways or standard of care for various patients, that telehealth fits just fine.

Use cases will increase as digital health platforms become more robust and available. In order to aid in the efficacy of telehealth appointments, people now can take home commercial-grade devices to test and gather certain vital signs, making it available to their physician. For example, a patient can take home a kit that takes several different vitals and have it flow right back into a digital health platform, from there it can integrate directly into the electronic health record systems. The greater flexibility this allows will increase the amount of telehealth visits since patients can be anywhere and yet physicians will be able to provide better care through receiving more patient data.

Where telehealth loses steam

Telehealth loses steam when physicians find flaws and burdensome workflows. Part of third-party application development is making sure all of the components integrate into the electronic health record and keep the physician in the EHR while not forcing them to log into multiple, different systems. Through streamlined applications, physicians will feel less burdened and it will ultimately boost utilization.

Another challenge of implementing telehealth is putting the burden on physicians to set up the actual online interaction. To minimize this, it is important to build new workflows within digital health platforms and the electronic health record making a virtual visit seem like you are in person. This would look like checking in with somebody at the virtual front desk and having that person verify information and insurance, just as they would for an in-person visit. When the patient is “roomed” and confirmed to be online and ready, then the nurse and physician are brought into the video interaction. Once the session is established, the doctor can step in without having the burden of troubleshooting technology.

Creating telehealth workflows aligned to known processes similar to in-person experiences takes the burden off physicians and gives them a familiar workflow, ultimately boosting adoption.

Looking ahead to the future

There will be care pathways requiring elements of both telehealth and in-person care. Even before COVID, mental health care is a prime example of a use case for telehealth. Moving forward, people will want to stay out of clinics and hospitals, out of fear.. There is a patient expectation now, and it’s unlikely we will go back. If a robust telehealth option isn’t provided as a clinic group or hospital system, there will be a loss in patients as many are going to expect this now as an option. Practices must have this as an offering even though budgets are tight, and hospital systems are going to be spending in this area because they know they have to.”

Advice to practitioners

Hospital systems need to ensure whatever clinical workflow they have is physician-friendly, patient-friendly and easily accessible while still focusing on digital health platforms and integration. When patients begin to take home medical devices that can send data, being able to incorporate that data into the EHR is critical. The potential of increased data points available to physicians from remote technologies is also exciting. But for patients with chronic illnesses, digital health technologies in the home will not only be a supplement, it may provide a better standard of care.

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