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Pandemic Lessons: How to successfully sustain telehealth long-term


In an environment of ongoing change and uncertainty, virtual care is a powerful, permanent option for patients and physicians alike.

Telehealth, so long on the verge of becoming mainstream, got a huge boost in utilization last year from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in the first half of 2021 we witnessed telehealth visits gradually decrease from those record highs as vaccination rates rose, states opened back up, and patients visited their doctors in person.

Now, as we watch portions of the country head back into lockdown due to COVID-19’s delta variant, it appears that the care delivery measures we grew accustomed to during the pandemic aren’t going away anytime soon. In an environment of ongoing change and uncertainty, virtual care is a powerful, permanent option for patients and physicians alike.

Convenience is Key

COVID-19 made it clear that telehealth can replace in-person visits that don’t require lab tests or physical examinations. This was especially true for mental health visits and many primary care vists where most of the appointment focuses on the physician-patient conversation. Telehealth options give patients an opportunity to seek high-quality care without having to be in the same room as their doctor. For virtual mental health visits, patients can get help they may have been too embarrassed or nervous to get by attending in-person therapy.

It’s also clear that patients want and need options when it comes to their health. In some cases, telehealth has given people a chance to see a doctor where they otherwise may not have had access. For example, athenahealth’s data has shown that while Black and Hispanic/Latino patients were less likely than white patients to visit a primary care provider during the pandemic, telehealth helped reduce the size of that gap.

Anticipating Patient Obstacles

Physicians hold a lot of influence when it comes to the adoption and usage of virtual care. However, when choosing to utilize telehealth in their practice, physicians must proactively identify where obstacles for their patients exist in order to overcome them. 

Wi-Fi access, technological literacy, resistance to change, and language barriers are all issues that may prevent patients from using the service. If practices can anticipate these obstacles and work to mitigate them, adoption will be smoother and patients will have an easier time adapting to the change.

To address these barriers, practices may, for example, need patient navigators to help patients turn on their cameras and download any required apps for virtual visits. The front-desk staff should also contact all patients before their first virtual appointments to walk them through the process. Clear and proactive communication like this can ease anxiety and ensure that patients make it to their appointments stress-free. In a post-pandemic world, practices can consider dedicating some clinical teams specifically to virtual care services, creating default visit types for clear-cut cases, and incorporating data collected from patients into routine work. 

Addressing Provider Pain Points

Some physicians fear that they may further harm their already-precarious work-life balance if they incorporate virtual care in their practice. Since virtual care allows physicians to take their appointments “home” (sometimes after hours), they feel it could create more work for them if not handled appropriately. This fear can be mitigated by giving physicians full control over how and when they use telehealth. For example, letting them decide how to split their time between clinic and telehealth hours (or to do afternoon appointments from home) means virtual care could improve work-life balance and reduce burnout.

In the athenahealth study mentioned above, physicians also noted that one of their most frequent pain points is when telehealth solutions are not fully integrated with EHRs or do not support check-in workflows or seamless online payment. Additionally, for organizations working without a single-screen, end-to-end solution, the front-desk and billing staff had to create workarounds that slowed their telehealth rollout. By investing in a fully integrated EHR system, providers can alleviate the stress that may come with these virtual visits.

Moving Forward

There is no litmus test to answer how much telehealth is the “right” amount or what the “right” use cases are. But one thing is clear, this pandemic has served as a laboratory for virtual care, allowing physicians to use their influence to get creative and innovative around how telehealth is used. Consequently, patient expectations for convenience and access will continue to evolve as well. COVID-19 has taught practices everywhere that they can’t wait for the next pandemic to adapt a well-integrated virtual care service offering. As we look to the future, it’s clear that virtual care should be a permanent complement to in-person care.

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