Thanks to advances in technology and proven outcomes, telehealth services have been steadily making their mark on healthcare delivery in recent years. Healthcare practices have looked to the convenience of telehealth systems as an effective complement to in-person care, to drive costs down and drive patient satisfaction up. As technology tools continue to gain greater adoption by patients, telehealth has become an essential part of that demand.
From 2016 to 2017, national utilization of telehealth grew 53 percent, according to a study conducted by the nonprofit healthcare organization FAIR Health. A 2018 AARP article cited experts who predicted telehealth services would be a $36.2 billion industry in 2020, as more states adopt parity laws to compensate providers for telehealth and nearly all of the nation’s large employers provide coverage for telehealth care.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has turned this growing, in-demand technology into a business and care necessity. The need for people to stay home doesn’t remove their need for care or your need to continue managing a practice. Telehealth is solving that issue. Read on for what you need to know to bring telehealth services to your practice.
What is telehealth technology?
Telehealth is defined as electronic information and telecommunication tools that support long-distance clinical healthcare, patient and professional health-related education, public health, and health administration, according to the Health Resources Services Administration.
Most people think of telehealth as a video conference — a virtual visit — between a healthcare provider and patient, and that’s the most common use for medical practices (also known as “real-time telehealth” or “synchronous telehealth”). When a provider and patient each have a computer or similar device, an internet connection, a camera, and a microphone, a telehealth visit can be conducted. Among telehealth services is a store-and-forward consultation, in which patient information is recorded at one site and analyzed by a doctor at another.
Although the terms “telemedicine” and “telehealth” are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Telemedicine specifically references remote clinical services. Telehealth defines a broader spectrum of healthcare-related activities, including remote non-clinical services such as provider training, administrative meetings, and continuing medical education, according to the Health Resources Services Administration.
Telehealth services can be used to treat a wide variety of general health issues, everything from the common cold or pink eye to sprains and strains. Some specialist practices can make the most of telehealth platforms, including those in psychology and psychiatry, dermatology, and ophthalmology. Primary care providers can also make excellent use of telehealth services, as most conditions can be diagnosed and treated without the need for a physical exam.
In 2018, the American Hospital Association reported that more than three-quarters (76 percent) of U.S. hospitals employed telehealth technology. At that time, usage rates had more than doubled since 2010 when only 35 percent of hospitals offered these services.
In total, 71 percent of providers use telehealth tools in some form, according to the 2017 Inpatient Telemedicine Study conducted by HIMSS Analytics. This marks a sharp increase from the 54 percent of providers using telemedicine in 2014.
Of those providers surveyed by HIMSS Analytics, 57 percent worked for critical access or rural hospitals or health systems, 31 percent were associated with academic medical centers or urban hospitals or health systems, and 12 percent cited their affiliation as “other.”
Even an organization as big and far-reaching as the Department of Veterans Affairs is getting in on the telehealth movement. During a March 2019 testimony to Congress, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie revealed that the proposed 2020 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs included $1.1 billion for telehealth services. This marks a 10.5 percent increase from the 2019 estimate.
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5 benefits of telehealth services to patients
1. Quality care without leaving home
As millions around the nation address COVID-19 with isolation and “stay at home” directives, telehealth is more than just convenient — it’s necessary. Telehealth services make it possible for patients to receive diagnosis and treatment from the comfort of their home. In any situation, this is a game-changer for those unable to make it to your office due to transportation hurdles or family obligations. For patients managing chronic conditions, they can stay comfortable at their home or workplace while checking in with you.
This type of virtual care also connects patients with providers outside their local area, giving them access to top specialists across the country.
2. Rural patients can get better care
Although the COVID-19 crisis has put so many people at a distance from one another, patients living in rural areas are already at a comparative distance from quality care and may lack the access that patients in larger cities and communities rely on. Telehealth services make it possible for rural patients to receive care from a variety of providers without having to travel far — or at all.
In his testimony to Congress, Secretary Wilkie revealed 782,000 U.S. veterans used telehealth in Fiscal Year 2018. Nearly half (45 percent) of these patients live in rural areas.
However, greater adoption inroads are still needed for many rural residents, according to a May 2019 study from NPR, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University. The study shows that only 24 percent of rural adults used telehealth for healthcare needs over the past few years. Eighty-nine percent expressed satisfaction with their experience.
3. Less time spent per visit
One of the major benefits of telehealth is the convenience it offers.
The average wait time for a doctor is just over 18 minutes, according to the 9th Annual Vitals Wait Time Report. This, of course, doesn’t include the time it takes a patient to get to your office and the length of the actual appointment. The total time investment may cause busy patients to delay care or forego it altogether, two decisions that result as practice no-shows or late cancellations.
Telehealth solves this problem and can be a tremendous time-saver for healthcare providers, too. Telehealth visits are easy to fit into a packed schedule. A five-minute follow-up visit is just that: five minutes. UnitedHealthcare, as one example, says it can connect patients with on-demand telehealth providers in 20 minutes or less.
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4. Cost-effective alternative
When patients opt to visit the emergency room and other urgent, immediate care settings, healthcare expenses can add up fast. Americans are already careful about healthcare costs, in general, and have been for years: According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 12.9 percent of Americans opted out of seeing a doctor in 2018 because of the cost.
Telehealth technology gives patients and providers an alternative to higher-cost care settings, lowering expenses without sacrificing quality. For example, when compared to emergency room fees, UnitedHealthcare customers that opt for virtual visits can save up to $1,800, according to the insurer. The insurer Regence estimates that patients can save, on average, $100 per visit when using telehealth services.
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the ability to take advantage of an alternate care setting extends beyond just cost. Rather than going directly to a potentially crowded ER waiting room, patients feeling COVID-19 symptoms can first speak with a provider via a telehealth visit. Being able to look at and speak with a sick patient is the first step in determining whether that person needs additional care.
5. Easier to stay healthy — and stay connected
Nearly half (45.5 percent) of people didn’t visit their primary care physician for at least a year, according to 2016 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whether due to a lack of quality care in their local area, a busy schedule, or an inability to pay pricey medical bills, this number is notably high.
One of the key benefits of telehealth is the increased access to care. Thanks to greater conveniences for patients, and the ability to see a healthcare provider with less time spent, people can take greater control of their health. They’re also far more likely to connect for follow-up visits and check-ins. More patients stick to care plans, meaning practices can improve patient adherence and outcomes.
5 advantages to offering telehealth services
1. Staying connected to current patients during challenging times
Whether patients are unable to reach your office due to personal or health constraints, telehealth services make sure you can see your patients and deliver care as regularly as possible — and often, more efficiently.
2. Connecting with new patients
Telehealth technology can connect you with patients outside your geographic area. When you’re no longer limited to those who can come to your physical office location, you can significantly expand your patient base.
3. Receiving reimbursements from more payer programs
A growing number of private insurance payers reimburse healthcare providers for telehealth services delivered. Additionally, in most states, parity laws ensure that telehealth payments are in line with payments received for in-office services.
To accommodate for the increased need for telehealth during the COVID-19 crisis, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) expanded coverage of telehealth services to all Medicare beneficiaries, reimbursing providers for video visits, as well as two other types of technology-driven virtual care. It’s not known whether CMS will maintain this approach beyond the crisis.
4. Coordinating care more easily
The very nature of telehealth promotes collaboration across providers. Since all patient exam notes, test results, and other information are available virtually, it’s much easier to coordinate care with specialists, either in real-time or using a store-and-forward process. For consultations or second opinions, you can simply pass records along to other members of the care team.
5. Increased patient engagement and patient satisfaction
With the ease and convenience of telehealth, patients have far fewer barriers to take an active role in their continuity of care. For practices, that means fewer no-shows and better retention, improved patient adherence and outcomes and, perhaps most important, a strong relationship between providers and patients. In a review of virtual patient interactions at Kaiser Permanente in 2017, 93 percent of patients were satisfied with their experience.
Telehealth services have quickly gained traction with healthcare practices, health systems, insurance payers and, most important, patients. Now is the time to consider the benefits of telehealth, not only so you can continue delivering care during difficult situations, but so you’re well-prepared for the future when telehealth looks to be the preferred choice of care delivery for an increasing number of patients.
For more on the topic of healthcare technology, see the blog post “Practice growth software & other tech upgrades your practice needs.”