Strategies to Optimize Telehealth to Improve Patients Engagement

Originally published on mHealthIntelligence – During the pandemic, telehealth was the best option for many patients to access healthcare. Now that society is returning to normal, patients will return to in-patient visits, but evidence indicates they still want access to virtual visits.

A recent survey by Medusind found that 37 percent of practices in various specialties that did not offer telehealth before the pandemic will continue to provide it after, raising the percentage of healthcare organizations providing telehealth after the pandemic to 66 percent.

The question now for organizations continuing virtual visits is how to best optimize telehealth to benefit their patients, their providers, and their bottom line.

Defining optimization

For many organizations, optimization means increased patient access to care, better health outcomes, and a viable revenue stream that produces a profit. However, to optimize the telehealth workflow, identified challenges need to be overcome first.

Overcome access to care challenges

Medusind’s survey found that almost 24 percent of providers said they had no significant challenges using telemedicine during COVID. Less than three percent reported using the technology at their practice was challenging, and almost six percent cited documentation or workflow as their biggest challenge.

The survey indicated the biggest challenge was getting patients to use telemedicine, which equates to a barrier to access to care. Provider comments describing this issue include:

  • Getting older patients to use (technology)
  • Patient challenges (and difficulties) with technology
  • Patient’s technology problems – they are all younger than me, and I thought they would be whizzes at using (it)

Telehealth may work better in some patient populations than others, and those populations may be defined by age, health concerns, or other criteria. There is only so much that can be done to help patients with technology. Therefore, evaluate which populations would benefit most from virtual visit access as well as have demonstrated comfort with the technology. Consider developing a plan to funnel patients into a virtual or in-person track—for example, suggesting a virtual follow-up to an appointment to some pre-qualified patients and recommending an in-person follow-up for others. Since virtual visits are generally faster, scheduling more of them may create additional time in the schedule for those patients requiring in-person visits, boosting the number of patients a provider can see in a day.

Improving health outcomes with telemedicine

Providers in the Medusind survey were asked, “With a focus on better outcomes, what would be the most effective way of using telehealth in the future?” The responses were:

  • Health counseling/therapy (36 percent)
  • Triage while making/before appointments (32 percent)
  • Lower-level sick visits (20 percent)
  • Health monitoring (i.e., blood pressure, diabetes) (20 percent)
  • Prescription check-ins (16 percent)
  • Other (16 percent)

Anecdotal evidence mentioned by providers suggested younger patients using virtual visits were more compliant with follow-up. Focusing on what works best for a specialty, practices should create a virtual visit protocol that optimizes the type of visits that most benefit patients and consider making templates to structure visits for maximum effectiveness and efficiency.

Improving the bottom line with telehealth

The potential savings telehealth offers on overhead costs may be tempting to some practices. Fewer exam rooms equal savings on furniture, supplies, equipment, and staffing for set-up and cleaning. In addition to fewer operating expenses, telehealth services can potentially give practices a larger market share and more appointments because of increased patient population (or because virtual appointments are easier to keep) means more revenue. One survey respondent said that one of the biggest surprises of using telemedicine was “how many patients actually prefer it versus coming into the office.”

Electronic consultations (e-consults) are already poised to become a viable revenue source for specialists. According to the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, e-consults are defined as “asynchronous, consultative, provider-to-provider communications within a shared EHR or web-based platform.” Medicare uses CPTs such as 99446 and 99452 to bill for e-consults. Some other commercial payers will reimburse e-consults if they are billed using the preferred CPT or HCPC. As technology improves, more specialists may find e-consults to be an easy revenue stream to cultivate.

Telehealth is here to stay. How to make the most of the opportunity

The survey’s last question was, “What has surprised you the most about using telemedicine?” And the most frequent answer was a variation of “Patients love it!”

Many practices will evolve to accommodate the ‘new normal’ that includes telemedicine as well as in-person visits. If organizations focus on not just using telehealth but optimizing it, they will be best positioned for future success.

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