One of the biggest limitations to delivering healthcare has traditionally been the necessity for both parties to meet in the same place at the same time. Accomplishing this scenario can be inconvenient in the best of times and impossible at the worst.
Because the healthcare industry is predicated on innovation, telemedicine has risen up as a potential solution in recent years. Patients nationwide have taken advantage of telehealth services, and major corporations have included them in their employee benefits packages.
“Telemedicine can be a useful tool for practices,” says Medscape. “The convenience it affords patients can help you retain current patients and attract new ones. Practices can use it to provide follow-up visits, reinforce treatment adherence, and offer specialty services in underserved areas. Originally envisioned for use in rural areas, telemedicine is now being used extensively by hospital systems, large group practices, and online telemedicine services. Small practices have shied away from it, but it is disarmingly easy for them to use. Telemedicine is already widely used in such specialties as pediatrics and behavioral health, but it can also help specialties with low adoption rates, such as surgery.”
If the past few years have seen an uptick in telehealth usage, 2020 was the year it truly skyrocketed. The pandemic proved that necessity can be the mother of adoption, as millions of patients have turned to telehealth to reach providers despite distance, time, and social-distancing guidelines.
“The adoption of telemedicine shifted into hyperdrive over the past month, with virtual healthcare interactions on pace to top 1 billion by year’s end, according to analysts at Forrester Research,” says a telehealth analysis from CNBC. “That would represent a massive expansion from telemedicine usage before the coronavirus pandemic.”
Yes, telehealth is here to stay. What exactly that means for healthcare—and for your practice—remains to be seen.
Potential Benefits of Telehealth
There are plenty of reasons that some healthcare providers have thus far resisted the spread of telehealth, including concerns related to patient confidentiality preservation during web-based consultations, payment methods for patients, and fairness-related reimbursement concerns. Other challenges stem from varying regulations regarding malpractice, prescriptions, and eligible mobile devices.
One of telehealth’s chief obstacles is technology adoption—healthcare providers have enough responsibilities on their plates already with the burden of EHRs and other time demands. But telehealth technology has improved so much that the learning curve has essentially been flattened: if you know how to have a Zoom call with your family, you can conduct a telehealth consultation with a patient. As long as you have a webcam on your computer, you are nearly ready to go.
Here are some of the other ways that telehealth can contribute to the success of your practice:
- Better patient engagement: Traveling to an office can be enough of a burden for patients that it decreases attendance for follow-up appointments. By allowing them to connect with you from the comfort of their homes, you’ll often notice better adherence to treatment plans and medication management.
- Better flexibility: It’s hard to get two people together in the same room at the same time—especially during standard office hours, when many patients have work or other obligations. Telehealth makes it possible for you to see patients on a more flexible schedule and from just about any location with available internet.
- Better access for disadvantaged patients: Patients in rural areas often find it difficult to reach an office for consultations. This also applies to low-income patients nationwide, as limited resources and inconsistent work schedules make doctor visits challenging. Additionally, patients with mental health challenges and other stigmatized conditions often struggle to visit offices. In all of these scenarios, telehealth provides a convenient solution.
- Better revenue opportunities: Overhead costs drop substantially when you hold consultations from your home. You’ll also lose less money because telehealth usually decreases the number of office-visit no-shows.
- Better ability to compete: When your practice provides telehealth as an option, you can attract patients who prefer (or even insist upon) this option. The rise of urgent care centers and other treatment options makes it crucial for you to attract new patients with offerings designed to simplify their lives.
- Better patient loyalty: Offering telehealth services improves patient satisfaction. When patients don’t have to deal with inattentive receptionists or frustrating long waits in your waiting room, they’re more keen to reward you with their loyalty.
To capture all of these benefits for your practice, you’ll need to add telehealth as soon as possible. Doing so requires you to familiarize yourself with the technology and develop a plan for implementation.
Bringing Telehealth to Your Practice
Your first objective: research what regulations apply in your region or state. The Center for Connected Health Policy provides a wide range of resources to help you comply with telehealth-related laws and regulations. Check out this helpful map to discover the rules that determine how you utilize this technology in your practice.
Here are some crucial factors to consider as you launch your telehealth offerings. They will help ensure a smooth implementation—and sustained success—for your practice.
1. Start by getting your patients’ opinion: Send out a survey or have in-person conversations to gauge your patients’ interest level in telehealth. Learn what time of day they would prefer to hold consultations and what telehealth services most interest them.
Taking this collaborative approach allows you to cover two goals at once: announcing to patients that you will offer telehealth and gleaning key insights for how to best implement it.
2. Get your staff in the game: You should also seek various perspectives from your staff. First, they’ll have valuable ideas to consider for the implementation. For example, your front-desk employees might anticipate possible issues with patient scheduling that you simply wouldn’t think of on your own. The bonus of enlisting your team in the process: they’ll be more likely to support the telehealth initiative because they were involved from the onset.
3. Hone your plan: Armed with insights from your patients and staff, you’ll be able to create a plan for how your practice will handle this telehealth component. Will you make the technology a centerpiece of the practice, or will it be more of a backup option when emergencies or scheduling difficulties arise? Will you only use telehealth for follow-up appointments, or could new patients have initial consultations that way?
By outlining how you want to use telehealth and what you hope to accomplish, you’ll have a roadmap that will help you to navigate obstacles and reach your goals.
4. Choose your software: Some telehealth software products are so loaded with features that they’ll practically do everything but cook your breakfast. If you’re experienced with these types of technologies, you might place a lot of value in a robust option.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to use telehealth systems in the past, however, you should look for user-friendly software that eliminates any unnecessary factors that would complicate your ability to communicate with your patients.
“Small practices and solo providers have to think carefully about virtual care, considering that they generally lack the resources to experiment and the overhead to survive a failed project,” says healthcare technology expert Eric Wicklund. “They should not look to replicate the programs in operation at large hospitals and health systems; rather, they should look at their own patient populations, pick a service that can be easily moved online (such as non-acute primary care, follow-up visits or chronic care management), and match the technology to the service.”
When reviewing possible technology systems, look for one that can fully integrate with the EHR or practice management system already in use at your office. This compatibility allows you to schedule appointments and transmit patient communications without any additional effort.
The best telehealth software can operate even with weak internet connections. This criterion is essential: you don’t want to compromise the quality of a consultation if you run into connectivity issues.
Lastly, make sure you can add your practice’s branding elements to the telemedicine software. By customizing the look of the system, you’ll create a more consistent experience for your patients and continue to build brand equity with them.
5. Spread the news: While you should already have had conversations with your patients about telehealth as you sought opinions in the early stages of this process, it’s advisable to create a marketing campaign that spreads the message thoroughly.
“Many telehealth networks were built on a premise that came from an old movie: ‘If you build it, they will come,’” explains Northwest Regional Telehealth Resource Center. “Telehealth providers soon found that simply building a network wasn’t enough. Success required that networks not only be built, but that they be used as part of routine patient care and that prospective patients had to know that the network existed so that they could request specialty care be delivered from distant sites.”
Your marketing efforts can utilize many different approaches. Perhaps you start by adding a new banner on your website that prominently announces your telehealth service. You could also add an FAQ section to address any questions or concerns your patients might have, then link to answers directly from the web banner.
Other marketing options include putting signage on your building or investing in paid ads on social media.
6. Start small: Don’t worry about diving headfirst into a wide-scale telehealth initiative. Start by focusing on the specialties where demand will be the highest. You can determine these areas of focus based on the patient insights you obtained earlier as well as industry best practices.
As you find success in the early stages of telehealth implementation, you can consider adding new telehealth services as you grow. Just avoid the temptation of offering everything to everyone—it’s best to move slowly and let strategy be your guide.
7. Figure out billing: In order to make sure that telehealth is beneficial to your practice, you should first establish billing guidelines. Relevant rates and reimbursements have been in flux lately, so it will take research on your part to figure out the billing process. This new telehealth venture will be much more successful once you have billing locked down.
How do you plan to receive co-pays and out-of-pocket payments from your patients? You could collect their credit card details at the time of scheduling and then charge them after the appointment, or you could utilize a software platform that allows them to pay through the system during the appointment.
8. Set up your location(s): Where will you base your telehealth operations? Part of the appeal of this technology is that you can conceivably meet with your patients from almost anywhere in the world. But there are requirements that must be met if you want your consultations to be effective, compliant, and positively experienced by your patients.
Your main objective should be finding an enclosed space that ensures privacy for conversations with patients. Headphones are recommended in order to make your patients’ voices inaudible to everyone but you—and the extra clarity that a good pair of headphones provides will be crucial when you’re trying to hear subtle sounds like a patient’s heartbeat.
In addition to finding a private room, your chosen space should also be distraction-free. Clear your desk or table of all clutter and make sure there are no background noises. Brighten the room with adequate lighting so patients can see your face and feel reassured by the professional-looking setting.
9. Make yourself camera-ready: Even if you’re holding your consultations from a beach house in Tahiti, it’s important to look as professional as you would in an exam room. Wear your typical wardrobe—and don’t forget to run a comb through your hair.
Given the physical distance between you and your patients, it’s important to maintain eye contact and reassure them that you are listening. If you are looking elsewhere in order to write a note or check in on a record, explain what you’re doing so they won’t feel ignored. The virtues of bedside manner shouldn’t be forgotten, though you’ll need to retrofit them to become “screenside manner.”
10. Practice to make perfect: There are plenty of factors to consider as you prepare for your first telehealth consultations. Decrease the pressure by conducting practice sessions with a family member. Explain to them that you’re trying to identify potential issues in your process, and then ask them for blunt feedback. You might be surprised by the quirks your loved ones notice.
This also grants you the chance to discover any technical kinks. Your goal is to familiarize yourself with the software so that it’s streamlined from the moment you boot up your computer to your final moments with a patient. Once the process becomes automatic, you’ll be able to devote your whole attention to the patient.
It’s time to put your preparation into practice and hold your first virtual consultation. Sit down at your desk or table, position your computer, and meet the needs of your patient just as thoroughly as you would with an in-office visit.
“Prepare for the visit by reading the patient’s complaint and having the patient’s chart ready,” Medscape recommends. “Confirm the patient’s identity, take a history, and assess the patient’s appearance. Determine whether the patient would be better off with an in-person visit. Many of your questions are basically the same as those you would ask during an in-person visit. You will need to get the chief complaint, a history of the present illness, associated signs and symptoms, past medical history, family history, and personal and social history, and review medications, allergies, and detailed symptoms. You may have to direct the patient to perform a self-examination.”
Your attention to detail is critical during a telehealth consultation. Notice your patients’ body language and vocal cues. It’s understandable if they’re nervous, as this could be an unfamiliar arrangement for them as well. Patients might feel uncomfortable speaking to a screen or worried about the security of the transmission.
Be empathetic and reassuring in your delivery. This is your chance to show them how dedicated and competent you are, whether you’re meeting with them in your office or from a different continent. By establishing these emotional connections, you might actually help them feel closer than if the consultation were in one of your exam rooms.