Industry Leaders Discuss the State of Telehealth, Summer 2021

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Healthcare providers have been forced to adapt considerably during the pandemic, and as a result, the use of telehealth services increased massively. Indeed, using digital information and communication technologies to access health care services remotely has been a critical component in reducing the spread of the virus. 

The increased usage was necessary to minimize the number of patients that physicians saw in person and to make it less likely they would fall sick with the virus themselves. Healthcare providers were forced to upgrade their capacities almost overnight to meet the surging demand from patients. Thankfully, many patients have found telehealth to be convenient, with 40% indicating they would continue to use it going forward in a report by McKinsey.

The industry has been rapidly changing, and it’s become increasingly difficult for physicians to keep up with the latest information. This is why The Festival of Telehealth & Digital Health was launched in February 2021. 

The second edition of the conference was recently held between July 26 and 28. It brought together over 75 world leading experts in the field from different backgrounds for a mix of panel discussions and speeches. It was a free event and completely virtual, with the hope of sharing knowledge as widely as possible. Thousands attended live, but recordings to the event have been made available too.

A wide range of topics were discussed, and it was fascinating to see how much had been learned over the course of the pandemic. The consensus opinion among these experts is that telehealth still has large growth potential, and there’s a lot of innovation still to come. 

Here are some of the highlights of the key topics discussed.

Maximizing patient experience

Panelists were refreshingly candid, admitting that the current services offered fall short in some areas for patients. 

Before the pandemic, there wasn’t any expectation that a sudden massive increase in demand was around the corner, so understandably, some systems struggled to cope. This was met by a lack of investment from many organizations, which left them with out of date processes that weren’t fit to deal with the number of patients they now had to deal with remotely.

Many speakers at the conference mentioned their desire to improve the experience for patients, and there was genuine idea sharing on how to get there. People from different firms all came together in roundtables and offered advice to each other. Rachel Schapiro, Director of Product Marketing at vcita, made the point that there is much to be learned from other industries for telehealth to improve.

“Just having lightweight solutions that are similar to other digital experiences that consumers are used to seeing online,” Schapiro recommended. “Scheduling an appointment online with your doctor can be like an ecommerce experience. It could be similar to ordering books on Amazon, or doing your shopping online or paying your bills,” she said.

“These are all digital experiences that are becoming the norm,” she added. “Being able to get the healthcare services you need should be aligned with the other digital experiences that patients are used to getting.”

It’s crucial that customers feel comfortable using the services, especially those who are elderly, for example. One tactic that many providers have adopted as an experience improvement is sending clearer messaging before and after appointments so customers know exactly what to expect. Some telehealth software platforms have introduced custom patient cards and notes that allow the healthcare provider to get up to speed quickly, rather than asking repetitive questions at the start of a session.

Accelerating adoption

An astonishing $50 billion has been invested into digital health innovation in the last 10 years, but it often takes time for physicians to use the latest technology. One speaker had carried out research which showed it that it takes an average of 17 years for treatment innovation to be adopted. 

Looking back on the early days of the Covid-19 crisis, this inertia to change left some further behind than they should have been. Amazon Care and Walmart Health are notable exceptions to this trend and are firmly forward looking. This makes them a major competitive threat to the incumbent organizations that were thriving when patients felt greater senses of loyalty. 

The telehealth industry is ripe for disruption because so few are making use of the best tools available. If existing health systems continue to rest on their laurels then they’ll begin to lose a more significant share of patients to the technologically enabled, just like we’ve seen happen in other industries.

The Festival of Telehealth & Digital Health featured several in-depth presentations about how firms can increase their rate of adoption from the companies on the vanguard. Christian Milaster, founder and CEO of Ingenium Digital Health Advisors, was particularly passionate in this area. 

“You need to do rapid innovation adoption,” was his message in a nutshell. 

“Develop your own process that fits your organization,” he continued. “Start with a small team, give them autonomy, then use those proven tactics of project management, change management, design thinking to leverage those tools which are proven in other industries. You can achieve that vision of making innovation decisions in days, validation in weeks and implementation in months.”

The cutting edge

Beyond the day-to-day operations of telehealth and patient care, there were some insightful case studies on display. One of the most interesting was Ekaterina Kostioukhina’s talk about how telehealth has been used by NASA. It provided a powerful demonstration of what is achievable with telehealth at the most extreme.

The lessons from NASA’s missions were used to aid more terrestrial telehealth implementations, because many of the core concepts are the same. The patient is somewhere that the doctor can’t physically see them. For multi-billion NASA projects, the attention to detail is unrivalled, and it will often form the basis for more regular telehealth operations.

“Telemedicine remains an important priority of NASA and an integral part of medical operations,” said Kostioukhina. “The focus of current Agency efforts has expanded beyond the original mandate of telemetry and remote communication to encompass new ‘smart medical systems’ that are designed not simply to communicate and disagnose ill astronauts, but also to provide physicians on the ground with the ability to remotely produce limited treatment options.”

Back on earth, there were other examples of what could be commonplace in the future. Telegenetics can allow greater access for patients to tackle inherited diseases despite their location. Combined with genetic eConsults, it means a normal physician can quickly get in touch with a genetics expert to help with difficult cases. The use of chatbots is also expected to boom to reduce the burden on human physicians.

Wrapping up

A great deal of material was covered at July’s Festival of Telehealth & Digital Health event, but there’s still so much more to discuss. The telehealth sphere is constantly adapting, and innovation is moving at a fast pace. As mentioned, the adoption of new tech is not keeping up with its creation, making conferences like these all the more important.

The next event will be in 2022, and it will be exciting to see how much the industry has moved on in the interim. Telehealth is here to stay – it’s who adopts the technology the fastest, to become the emerging leaders, which will be the story to watch.

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