It’s clear that telehealth is here to stay.
Prior to COVID-19, telehealth was considered a niche or nice-to-have service for some specialties, while others were skeptical of its efficacy and slow to adopt. However, the pandemic changed perceptions nationwide when accessibility to care became a national imperative. Medical facilities across the country embraced telehealth to connect with patients near and far. Now, as medical providers ease into the new landscape, it’s clear that telehealth is here to stay. New research suggests that telehealth drives positive health outcomes, increased access to care, and the ability for practices to meet evolving patient expectations. It is the primary tool for a modern patient experience.
According to the CDC, data from the first quarter of 2019 shows that telehealth visits were 50 percent lower than in the first quarter of 2020. At the time, reimbursement models for telehealth services were complicated and often restrictive; for example, only some rural areas were deemed eligible for telehealth treatment and reimbursement. Licensing was also confusing and both providers and patients were concerned about the security and effectiveness of a telehealth visit.
The disruptions to patient care caused by the COVID-19 pandemic forced healthcare providers to rapidly adopt telehealth. Congress eased the requirements for telehealth services and increased the number of fully reimbursable procedures. Platforms not compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)like Skype, Facetime, and Zoom were temporarily permitted for telehealth so long as they were not public-facing. With many of its burdens lifted, by December of 2020 nearly 80 percent of independent practices had begun to offer telehealth.
Telehealth offered a solution to patient care that kept providers safe from exposure and extended access to care across various population groups. The equitability of telehealth support proved to be yet another benefit, with the 89 percent of American adults who own smartphones now having easier access to quality communication with their providers, resulting in better healthcare outcomes. The convenience of telehealth all but eliminates the barriers of distance and time. Moreover, telehealth has expanded access to quality care to some medically underserved communities.
Patients have also embraced telehealth, highlighting a shift in patient preferences. Patients appreciate the ability to connect with their providers from the comfort of their homes. No longer do they have to rush to and from appointments or waste time in physical waiting rooms. Yet while telehealth offers convenience, patients expect that their information is protected. Non-HIPAA compliant tools posed a number of challenges, including with security and continuity of care, in the early days of COVID-19. Providers did not have a seamless experience with clinical documentation and video management. The manual work that derived from these quick fixes was time-consuming for staff.
Telehealth has empowered practices to engage with patients across every step of the care journey to strengthen clinical outcomes and improve practice operations. From automated telehealth appointment reminders to digital intake forms to integrated note-taking, telehealth makes it easier for providers and patients to connect.
In the years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, telehealth has advanced to improve functionality for the needs of patients and providers. An integrated platform that offers secure communication channels where providers can access charts during telehealth visits is key for success and long-term usage. Features like provider-specific rooms, a virtual waiting room, and digital intake forms refine the patient experience by streamlining operational procedures. Practices that have integrated automated appointment reminders by text or email report up to 35 percent decrease in patient no-shows. Telehealth group appointments show great efficacy for support groups, mental health therapy, and parents needing to accompany their children.
Kareo’s latest telehealth data reveals that of the providers who offer such services, nearly 50 percent of their monthly appointments are telehealth visits. Independent practices have begun to implement strategic initiatives to enhance their telehealth services. By establishing execution strategies, outlining goals, and choosing the right technology partner, independent practices are improving their telehealth operations. With access to customization capabilities, practices can improve internal documentation and patient-facing communications. These tools are foundational to establishing a modern practice that keeps patients coming back.
The future for telehealth and its impact on national healthcare is bright. The continued use of telehealth is projected to improve the nation’s clinical quality by 20 percent and reduce healthcare spending by 15 to 20 percent. For example, the advancement of at-home diagnostics and high-quality virtual visits are expected to improve health outcomes and reduce healthcare costs for individuals who manage chronic conditions. Every day the industry is uncovering new opportunities to leverage telemedicine. One such opportunity includes webinars to support proactive, preventative care and patient education. Perhaps most importantly, access to care will continue to expand by an estimated 20 percent, including to unserved communities and populations across the country.
Care delivery will continue to evolve with patients at the forefront of the tools and offerings provided. Providers are encouraged to embrace telehealth medicine and its expanding practices to provide a modern patient experience that is demonstrating success across multiple facets of quality of care and patient engagement.
Liz Fobare is the VP of Product Management at Kareo, a Tebra company. With over 15 years of experience in the healthcare technology industry, Liz is a strategy expert. She is highly trained in design thinking methodologies with a proven track record of achieving operational efficiencies in product development, marketing, and customer experience.