Telehealth: The Benefits of Virtual Visits and How It Improves Patient Experience

People are now used to Google Hangouts and web-based meetings. These applications have changed the way business is done, and they’re changing healthcare too. Health systems are determining the best ways to integrate telehealth into their practices and realizing the many benefits telehealth provides. A study released in April showed that “private insurance claim lines for services rendered via telehealth as a percentage of all medical claim lines grew 53% nationally, more than any other venue of care studied for that variable,” from 2016 to 2017, according to FH Healthcare Indicators, and published in the American Journal of Managed Care (AJMC).

What is Telehealth?

Before digging into the benefits, let’s talk about what telehealth actually is since it’s a broad category. The federal government defines telehealth as “the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration.” Of course, there are a variety of technologies in play, including videoconferencing, streaming media, and storing and forwarding images – which can be accessed via the internet, wireless or wired communications.

Communication might be live, such as a consultation between a clinician and patient over a video platform. It could include pulling up and sharing images taken previously to refer to during the conversation. Communication can be relayed, with a clinic sending imaging to a radiologist to read in a different location at a different time and then receiving reports online when completed. Wearable devices or equipment can send data to a clinician monitoring them elsewhere. And although telephone calls seem very 20th century, they also fit the definition of telehealth. Certainly, health communication and recommendations are shared over the phone, and even psychotherapy is sometimes conducted this way.

How Can Telehealth be Valuable?

There are many benefits of telehealth for the patient, the practitioner and the health system. These include:

Behavioral Health Coaching: Behavioral health coaching can be used for issues such as cardiac health. A 2015 study in the AJMC showed that patients participating in a cardiac behavioral health program accessed via video screen or phone had significantly fewer all-cause hospital admissions in 6 months and significantly fewer hospital days, both of which led to a reduction in medical costs even after paying program costs.

Access to Doctors in Remote Areas: Rural care issues occur in the United States and other countries, and telehealth is making in-roads for both. One example domestically is cancer centers using telehealth to access specialty care not available in their area. Patients don’t need to travel several hours or more to a tertiary care center to talk with the specialist. Using telehealth, specialists can communicate with the primary care clinicians or general oncologists about side effects, chemotherapy administration, or treatment plans. Internationally, telehealth is used widely, for any specialty care including imaging opinions, reporting lab results, clinical care and training. Point of care ultrasound is one popular use, as the images can be shared in real time and teaching can occur remotely.

Convenience: Telehealth adds convenience for both the patient and clinician. The patient doesn’t always have to leave work, home or a vacation spot to seek medical care. It’s also helpful for elderly patients and those with mobility issues. It’s convenient for clinicians as well, as they aren’t always available at the office or even located in the patient’s city. Employers recognize that telehealth is convenient for patients, and it can be cost-effective. Due to this, telehealth is an add-on service many employers already offer as a benefit. 96% of employers surveyed for the Large Employers’ 2018 Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey said they would make it available the next year, in states allowing it.

Telehealth in Hospitals: Telehealth has multiple benefits when incorporated into hospital care. Team meetings, with or without the patients, can include a remote physician, whether that be a hospital team member in their office or a specialist outside of the hospital system. Family members can also be pulled into discussions with the care team via video portals so they can be part of the discussion if they’re not able to attend in person.

Why has Adoption of Telehealth Been Slow?

There are some barriers to entry for telehealth, though these are being addressed in various ways.

Physician Licensing: Physicians are licensed state by state. As such, some require licensing in the state where they’re consulting via telehealth, even if they’re physically located and licensed in a different state. To address this, some states are granting telehealth-specific licenses.

Credentialing: Just like licenses are state specific, credentials to practice in a hospital are specific to that institution. Efforts are being made to determine different credentialing methods, such as using a common application to a hospital system instead of requiring credentialing from each hospital in that larger system.

Reimbursement: Paying for medical care is already a complicated topic, with differences based on payer type, practice location and diagnostic coding. Add in costs to implement a telehealth system, and some practices are concerned about recouping their investment.

Technology Adoption: Staff members and clinicians will need to get comfortable with telehealth adoption, on top of the numerous other technologies used in healthcare. Also, patients may need to gain familiarity, including those who need it the most – rural communities, the elderly and those with mobility issues. By definition, telehealth requires access to the internet or to the phone lines, so there also needs to be some infrastructure in place.

The Future of Telehealth

Telehealth has a bright future, given its many applications. People are already used to working from home and meeting with colleagues and clients via web-based applications. Files are increasingly shared online and bills are paid electronically. It’s only a matter of time before telehealth becomes a common practice. Maven Wave is working with healthcare clients to bolster adoption of various technologies that can improve patient care while innovating to improve efficient and effective delivery. Contact us to learn more.

About the Author

Deborah Abrams Kaplan
Deborah Abrams Kaplan
Deborah Abrams Kaplan is a consultant at Maven Wave focusing on healthcare. Debbie writes about healthcare technology, practice management, and medical advances for a variety of clients, including industry publications, hospitals and health systems, and businesses.
August 8th, 2019
HEALTHCARE

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2019-08-08T13:27:33-05:00