Terrence Sims, Raintree

Telehealth Goes Mainstream: The Doctor Will Virtually See You Now

By Terrence D. Sims
Terrence Sims, Raintree

COVID-19 ushered in a fundamental change in how medicine is being delivered.

While the last 50 years has seen unprecedented advancements in medicine, the fundamental way doctors treated patients didn’t change until 2020. The global pandemic brought telehealth into the mainstream, changing the way medicine will be practiced forever.

By the end of 2020 46% of patients were using telemedicine and 48% of doctors were treating patients virtually. In 2021 more than 20% of all medical visits are expected to be virtual.

During the COVID crisis people of all ages were forced to turn to technology for everyday necessities like school, work, grocery shopping and doctor visits. This shift forced people who perhaps hadn’t used virtual meeting platforms before to learn this new way of connecting. This adaptation of technology by all generations paved the way for telemedicine to remain popular long after the pandemic is over.

Patients love the convenience and the time saved by using telehealth services. Eighty-three percent of patients said they would continue participating in virtual visits and 28% said they would use telehealth even if it was not covered by their insurance.

The willingness of payers such as Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers to expand coverage for telehealth services during the pandemic has also fueled increased popularity. In April 2020 43.5% of Medicare patient primary care visits were conducted virtually.

Now that telemedicine has proved itself with providers, patients and insurance companies, what’s next in its evolution?

Build a Solid Foundation

In order to effectively offer telemedicine services, providers need to have the right technology in place. Similar to building a multi-lane highway for vehicles, IT infrastructure needs to be constructed with the capability to promote a seamless flow of bi-directional traffic—in this case, data, software applications, text and video. This infrastructure must also be able to accommodate and connect any type of mobile or stationary device, anywhere, anytime.

Like massive 18-wheeler rigs hogging lanes on the interstate, video gobbles up huge amounts of Internet bandwidth. Embedded telehealth solutions need to be thoughtfully designed to optimize the transfer of multimedia streams between provider and patient in order to be highly effective, support an excellent user experience and help deliver reliable healthcare outcomes.

Types of TeleHealth Solutions

Since telehealth adoption had been low before the pandemic, most solutions were developed for general use across the healthcare continuum, as was the case with the first generations of electronic health record (EHR) software. But now teleheath technology can focus on a specific medical speciality or type of telehealth.

When the layperson thinks of telemedicine they most often think of real-time telehealth, which is the virtual visit that became popular last year. However, there are other aspects of telehealth. Store and forward solutions let doctors share medical information with each other securely. Remote patient monitoring solutions let physicians track a patient’s health stats from afar and mobile health solutions can connect patients to information or doctors through an app.

Most medical specialties, sub-specialties and specialty practices have the potential to offer virtual options for at least some components of care, whether it’s a pre-surgical consult, a group counseling session with a psychologist or a physical, occupational or speech therapy session. It is the ability of technology to create niche programs that allows telehealth to continue to grow and evolve.

Technology Investment Grows

The options in telemedicine are a fast growing segment of healthcare. The value of telemedicine visits is expected to hit $106 billion by 2023. Last year investment in telehealth was up 46% over 2019. The popularity of virtual medicine is attracting big tech. Google is investing $100 million in telehealth provider, Amwel, and Microsoft is launching a $40 million initiative AI for Health.

With the growth of telemedicine, new solutions targeting specific specialties are growing. For example, a behavioral health practice wants a telehealth solution that enables psychologists conducting virtual therapy sessions to document in real time directly into a patient’s EHR, and may need the ability to document for multiple patients participating in a group session. Family practitioners need the ability to integrate remote monitoring devices, whether checking blood pressure, temperature or heart rates. Surgeons, speech-language pathologists, physical therapists and chiropractors have their own unique documentation and patient communication requirements, to name just a few other types of practices with varying needs.

In addition to enabling practitioners to examine, engage and treat patients, comprehensive telehealth solutions ideally incorporate the ability to securely collaborate with peer providers or specialists, connect with referral sources and handle billing, payment, scheduling and other practice management needs. There are embedded, customizable and programmable engagement platforms that are HIPAA-compliant, supporting telehealth, secure email messaging, text notifications, patient clinical questionnaires and treatment outcomes. Practitioners can interact with individual and multiple patients in a single virtual session, and take advantage of a range of tools and supports from screen sharing to virtual reception.

Telehealth is Here to Stay

COVID changed many things in the world and the way medicine will be practiced moving forward is one of them. In a recent survey 75% of people said they expected virtual medicine to be a standard part of care moving forward. Fifty percent of people said they would actually switch providers to have the convenience of telehealth visits.

With nearly 70% of patients naming simple-to-use technology as the most important factor in choosing telemedicine services, it is crucial that your underlying IT infrastructure is up to speed and your telehealth solution is customized to your specific needs. That way, the physician’s practice can maximize care delivery flexibility and satisfaction for patients and providers, while also optimizing care outcomes, affordability and efficiency.

About The Author

Terrence Sims, Raintree