COVID-19 supercharged what had been a typically slow but steady adoption of telehealth.
Crises have a way of accelerating change. That’s never been more apparent than with the explosive rise of telehealth services resulting from the pandemic.
COVID-19 supercharged what had been a typically slow but steady adoption of telehealth by risk-averse healthcare systems. The challenges that organizations faced when starting telehealth services were no longer seen as insurmountable barriers and were quickly set aside. In a matter of weeks, telemedicine was becoming standard practice as the urgency of providing and continuing care for patients during the pandemic took priority.
Out of necessity, the accelerated adoption of telehealth so far has been hurried and somewhat haphazard. While it’s important to point out that telehealth has been around for several decades and training and HIPAA requirements have been established, the new players entering into the telehealth space were challenged to create a system that was organized and efficient in the midst of the pandemic chaos.
As the disruptive period of the pandemic comes to a close, healthcare institutions need to start thinking in a more systematic way about how to invest in telehealth and integrate these services into their practices in a way that improves quality of care over the long term.
Telehealth has become a reality to which every healthcare provider needs to adapt or risk falling behind. It is viewed as a major strategy to address the increasing demand for healthcare by a growing aging population and where provider shortages are increasing. After growing by around 80% to $10 billion in 2020, the U.S. telehealth market is expected to expand by an average 30% each year to reach over $25 billion in 2025.
A whole industry is taking shape that will require new skills of healthcare providers and generate jobs more broadly, including customer care positions, quality assurance, sales roles, IT support and in the engineering and design of software and hardware.
Telehealth can play a major role in supporting the management of chronic illness like diabetes and cardiac conditions that require ongoing interactions and continuous monitoring. Nutrition services and mental health treatment are examples of other practice areas that are a natural fit with telehealth. Its other great potential is to reach parts of the population, predominantly in rural areas, that have struggled to access healthcare.
But the adoption of telehealth will bring challenges that healthcare institutions need to prepare for.
The nursing profession is based on our ability to use all five senses to assess our patients’ physical, psychological, social, economic, cultural, and spiritual health. As a young ICU nurse, an instructor impressed upon me the importance of touch and physical connection with patients.
These interactions yield vital information about a patient’s condition and contribute to our ability to provide quality care. One of the big challenges for both doctors and nurses will be how to maintain that sensory contact with patients as treatment becomes more virtual.
Part of the answer lies in training and educating healthcare providers so they become fluent with the tools of telehealth and can use them to communicate and monitor effectively.
Healthcare agencies can’t simply give their staff Zoom accounts and hope for the best; they need to provide training on the skills needed to get the most out of the new medium. Healthcare education institutions will need to review and revise their curricula to include the necessary competencies for telehealth, including through short-burst learning and digital badging.
Nursing Infomatics is one job area that has huge potential to grow in line with telehealth. Receptionists and other support staff need to understand that their purview now extends beyond the walls of the institution and into the homes of patients.
Patients themselves—many of whom may be older and not very tech-savvy—will also need support to master the virtual health process so they get the most out of the encounters without getting frustrated.
Telehealth systems will need back-office support to run smoothly and ensure they don’t create new bottlenecks. Scheduling is a prime example. Physicians will always over-run their appointments, creating the challenge of how to manage online queues of patients.
Provider-support teams will need to become adept in assisting patients and running initial checks and examinations before handing them over to the professional provider.
Providers also need to utilize the full range of telehealth tools, beyond the video calls that have become its most well-known feature. Remote monitoring devices are becoming increasingly common and sophisticated. I myself have an implanted cardiac loop recorder that alerts my cardiologist immediately if I have an atrial fibrillation event anywhere in the world.
Home monitoring equipment combined with mobile apps can give providers a continuous view of patients’ condition, supplementing video appointments and in-person interactions. Emails, texts, and phone calls are all valuable tools that should be part of a robust telehealth system.
All this technology needs to be considered at a time when healthcare agencies are facing major financial challenges as a result of the pandemic. While telehealth should be a cost-saving and revenue driver in the long term, the investments in training, hardware and software needed to make it work will impact the shorter-term fiscal picture and need to be carefully considered.
Healthcare institutions need to chart a path to a future where telehealth is going to be a big part of their offering. It’s not that telehealth is likely to supplant in-person care in any one area of medicine, but it can augment the care systems we have today in important ways.
The power of telehealth lies in the way it will supplement existing care and help free up physicians and nurses to focus more resources on the most acute, complex conditions.
Kathleen Winston, PhD, RN, is Dean of the College of Nursing at University of Phoenix.