Telehealth became a lifeline for patients and physician practices in 2020, and helped more than 9 million Medicare beneficiaries receive much-needed care during the early months of the pandemic.

As a result, 65% of patients said they will continue to use telehealth post-pandemic, according to one survey. That’s a significant number and a reflection of rapidly evolving consumer sentiment around virtual care, considering more than 8 in 10 patients polled had not previously tried this model. And notably, research also points to high satisfaction for patients using telehealth across certain specialties.

But while patients are continuing to use telehealth in 2021, many physicians are experiencing a ‘now what?’ moment and are uncertain of what kind of telehealth experience they should support. Common questions include: What does a fully functioning, ‘hybrid’ practice look like? What operational changes will we need to make to support telehealth? Which types of encounters are better in person? What does telehealth look like when we’re not in a state of emergency?

Going forward, providers need to not only answer these questions but also reflect on the components of a sustainable telehealth strategy that optimizes patient care and satisfaction without impacting financial health.

Evolving Patient Preferences

When considering the next phase of telehealth, it’s important to also consider its history.

Until recently, telehealth was relegated to patients in rural areas who had trouble accessing timely, high-quality in-person medical care. Medicare and private health insurance covered a limited number of virtual use cases.

While the adoption of virtual care platforms grew steadily before, most experts agree the coronavirus pandemic was a tipping point: The CARES Act, passed in April 2020, immediately nixed regulatory barriers to providing virtual care. The emergency legislation called for Medicare to pay physicians for telehealth at the same rate as in-office visits for all diagnoses, and removed technological and legal obstacles (e.g., HIPAA penalties for using less-secure video platforms) to telemedicine encounters.

Bottom line: Providers needed to stay in business in 2020 despite quarantine mandates, and telehealth became ubiquitous.

But now that patients have had a taste of virtual, they want it all: in-person care with the option of virtual. A recent McKinsey and Company survey underscores this reality. As healthcare leaders are discovering, there’s no way to move forward without offering both. The much-talked-about “consumerization of medicine” that existed pre-2020 is now amplified to the tenth power.

Yet a lot of physicians are not prepared to meet these expectations, having not anticipated the need to permanently adopt telehealth in early 2020. For some, investing in a more permanent telehealth solution represents a significant financial and operational undertaking not unlike investing in an EHR.

Leveling Up

While no two practices look the same, supporting virtual care will become even more essential to running a healthcare organization. Here are three questions that physician practices should ask themselves when upgrading or scaling their telehealth program.

What do patients want?

While technology features and applications are important considerations, the basics of what consumers desire from a telehealth experience are expected: convenient, timely, high-quality medical care. Patients care less about screen resolution quality than the fact that they see a doctor without having to drive 50 miles to see a specialist or stop working during their lunch hour. According to one recent study of 2,000 U.S. adults, 65% of respondents who said they like using telehealth services pointed to convenience as the primary benefit.

Another consumer healthcare survey revealed that as many as one in four millennials had not undergone an annual physical in at least five years. Many cited inconveniences as a key reason for skipping. Physicians should consider if there is a way to shape telehealth and in-person care to accommodate these modern-day realities. Could a practice mobilize blood draws and vital-sign checks, say, by dispatching a clinician to come to a patient’s homes (and bypass the short list of limitations of virtual encounters)?

This would enable patients to stay remote and receive healthcare in the most convenient way (i.e., from their homes). The idea isn’t so far-fetched. Amazon is already piloting this approach through its new telehealth service, Amazon Cares, in a few markets. Thinking outside of the box could be the key to boosting engagement and reducing missed appointments.

Where are the best opportunities?

There are multiple ways that organizations can provide virtual care, but not every single use case makes sense for an organization. This is an important concept to emphasize when looking at trends data.

For example, studies suggest that a growing number of patients are open to using telehealth for chronic care management.

However, chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension disproportionately affect individuals in communities that lack digital access. If a sizeable portion of practice’s population needs ongoing support for chronic care management, that practice might want to work with payers to compensate tablets or subsidize Internet access to ensure patients can receive the care they need to avoid hospitalization.

Simply put, telehealth should be tailored to actual population health needs.

What do you need to be ready, from a compliance standpoint?

Understanding federal mandates and state laws as they evolve is part of running a business. But as many current telehealth guidelines were issued during a state of emergency, paying close attention to how they evolve is especially important. Physician practices should ensure their vendor is prepared to address any issues or regulatory changes as they develop.

What can you do to ensure everything works with your existing systems?

Telehealth is a convenient way to improve access to care, but these offerings also need to be suitable for medical practice workflows and able to comply with data reporting requirements, send electronic prescriptions, and document care. Seamless integration is key.

Physician practices that want to improve the care and services they provide patients will need a strong telehealth program. Carefully considering patient preferences, business opportunities and compliance first will inform the best investments—and expansions—in virtual care.

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Physicians Practice | October 4, 2021

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