This article by Ambra Health CEO, Morris Panner, was originally published in Forbes on May 26, 2020.
Telehealth has been on the rise as the public appetite has increased for healthcare options that are safe and convenient. Providers, too, appreciate how telehealth can reduce their costs and expand ways to meet patients’ needs. A survey of physicians and specialists last year showed that 22% of respondents already have experience doing video sessions with patients, while the American Hospital Association reported that, as of 2017, 76% of hospitals had at least partially implemented computerized telehealth systems.
Social Distancing Measures Make Telehealth A Necessity
In the blink of an eye, telehealth has become a necessity as many hospitals and medical practices are overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients and “stay at home” orders are keeping people with other health concerns indoors.
Two of the biggest administrative barriers to telehealth — HIPAA privacy standards and lack of acceptance by some insurance carriers — have been quickly changed by the government, with Medicare coverage of telehealth services now expanded and HIPAA guidelines relaxed to make allowances such as letting doctors communicate with patients on their own phones.
The Challenges Of Virtual Healthcare
As a broad term for the ability to deliver healthcare remotely, telehealth can have many applications. It can refer to automated systems that allow patients to make appointments on the web or internal systems that facilitate the sharing of records between offices.
Numerous providers already offer some services, such as allowing patients to email their doctor’s office for a prescription renewal or to ask an on-duty nurse questions on a 24-hour hotline. But what is particularly urgent now is helping patients to consult with their doctors about health issues and, ideally, even the ability to receive full exams and diagnoses.
A critical part of making that possible is establishing lines of communication between patients and healthcare professionals, whether that’s via phone, text, email or videoconferencing. To make the remote “visit” more like an in-person one, extra capabilities may be needed. For instance, can the patient instantly transfer images and records to the physician? Can the provider arrange for the patient to get home monitoring equipment that will measure vitals and other data that would help the physician evaluate the patient?
Though some of the administrative challenges have eased, practical challenges like these remain. Virtually every healthcare organization now feels the urgency of adopting telehealth services, but the technical aspects could be the sticking point for many. Overhauling legacy systems with outdated software and technology and making sense of the IT aspects of telehealth can be intimidating.
Putting Telehealth Into Action
There is no time to waste now, so organizations wanting to get serious about telehealth should start by getting everybody in the C-suite on board. While telehealth’s value is obvious in this moment of crisis, some businesses may still be reluctant, thinking it won’t be as in demand when things get back to normal. Fortunately, there is plenty of data that proves that customers who have utilized telehealth are highly satisfied with it.
Make sure the leaders in your organization understand this could be a big project that will require changing multiple systems, especially if your business is a large one, like a university hospital consortium, for instance. Do your research, and present leaders with a selection of options to find out which approach excites them. You don’t want them getting cold feet and backing out midway, leaving you with a half-baked set of telehealth services only partially in place.
Enthusiastic agreement from management is critical to setting the tone for everyone else, but all personnel has to buy in since it’s the rest of the organization — from administrators to doctors — that will have to implement and utilize the services. Be sure to have your tech people involved in every conversation from beginning to end. They will know what you are capable of with your current technology and have ideas on what is possible.
If technological know-how is a weak spot in your organization, bear in mind that some telehealth companies are able to help install a secure, full-scale platform, providing the necessary expertise and guidance each step of the way.
Don’t Do It Halfway
Try to avoid a piecemeal approach. While you might currently only be focused on the need for one telehealth program (e.g. teleradiology, teletherapy), take some time to think about the future and what you imagine will be needed over the next few years. It may pay to completely overhaul now to avoid future headaches. If you do really feel that there is currently only the budget or need for a narrowly focused telehealth solution, think about choosing a platform that will scale up if you need to expand later.
Once you have installed a new telehealth platform with an array of exciting capabilities in place, don’t let it gather dust. Make sure someone “owns” every important aspect of the project and is responsible for getting each telehealth service up and running. Tech support, admin support, and training for both providers and patients on using services will be key.
Clinical Care Comes Home
Typically, a healthcare organization would prefer to have lots of time to consider the ramifications of a decision like implementing telehealth. But present circumstances are forcing the issue, and it will likely be to the ultimate benefit of everyone. Patients who have previously been hindered by the difficulty of traveling will get the attention they need, and those with chronic conditions will be able to receive more regular monitoring.
Healthcare businesses, too, will appreciate the ability to streamline administrative processes, reduce overhead costs, and give doctors and nurses more options for connecting with their patients. Telehealth’s biggest advantage is its ability to open up multiple avenues for communication and care, and we need that now more than ever.