By Catalina Lara
It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way the world looks at healthcare providers and healthcare safety practices. Even prior to the global pandemic, computer engineers just like me were scrambling to find convenient healthcare solutions for both health. It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how the world looks at healthcare providers and healthcare safety practices. Even prior to the global pandemic, telehealth was beginning to become an offering from some physician practices. Once the pandemic hit, it forced telehealth to become a new normal for many types of office visits.
As the CEO and founder of a healthcare information technology consulting firm, TempDev, my primary focus over the last 14 years has been expanding the future of healthcare software. TempDev, and other Information Technology (IT) companies, are working tirelessly to find ways to combat COVID-19 by integrating NextGen Healthcare software with telehealth solutions to facilitate seamless virtual visits.
The Importance of Telehealth
So what exactly is telehealth? Telehealth is the distribution of medical care via web conferencing, messaging, or telephone calls. Medical providers will often use telehealth virtual visits to perform remote clinical, diagnosing, and monitoring services.
From a patient’s perspective, it’s easy to see the benefits of having access to telehealth services, particularly during a global pandemic. However, it wasn’t readily available before the pandemic making adoption critical.
In March of 2020, the United States government passed the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act as a response to the rising number of confirmed COVID cases sweeping the US. This drove telehealth’s rapid growth that has continued over the past year.
Due to the unprecedented number of positive COVID cases seen in the US since 2020, healthcare organizations have had to make impactful investments in new telehealth technologies and care delivery models. These significant strides have opened up a world of opportunities, as well as challenges within the telehealth marketplace.
Opportunities within the Telehealth Marketplace
- Convenience & Time Saving
A tremendous opportunity within the telehealth market is the convenience of having a health professional or physician’s medical advice regardless of the physician or patient’s geographical location. Telehealth improves access to patients have to physicians, especially in rural areas that are increasingly losing access to medical care.
Most telehealth software is available to patients through smartphones, video conferencing apps, or from a computer. Well integrated telehealth solutions allow patients to self-schedule visits on their patient portal that they can attend through telephone calls, video calls, or even instant messaging. This allows for patients to instantly have access to remote office visits, wellness exams, and consultations without even leaving their homes. It is also not uncommon for doctors to have follow-up virtual visits to discuss lab or diagnostic results after an in-person visit.
These impactful services are the key to controlling patient waiting-room congestion while drastically reducing patient no-shows and boosting overall patient satisfaction.
- Safer Medical Care During COVID-19 Pandemic
Another valuable benefit of using telehealth is that it is safer for the physician, medical staff, and patient during the pandemic. It also allows physicians to safely care for COVID patients with less severe cases while not exposing themselves to the virus. In fact, the global pandemic pushed many governments to ease up on healthcare regulations to make convenient, high-quality healthcare more accessible.
After March of 2020, healthcare regulations in the US subsequently became more flexible. As a result of new provisions in healthcare laws, patients could access high-quality virtual medical care safely. Equally as importantly, the bill’s provisions waived most Medicare payment requirements allowing for physicians to be compensated similarly to regular office visits. As a result of these effects, more and more people were seeking access to telehealth solutions from the safety of their homes.
Patients who have been exposed to or are showing symptoms of COVID can now connect to a licensed healthcare professional for treatment assistance without putting medical staff and uninfected patients at risk. Ultimately, telehealth protects the well-being and safety of both patients and healthcare providers.
- Allows for Greater Continuity of Care with Regular Physicians
Before the pandemic, most telehealth visits were not happening with patients’ regular doctors or primary care physicians because they often weren’t appropriately reimbursed. Patients would utilize popular websites such as MDLive however, these sites often do not provide consistent care with regular physicians who understand the patient’s entire medical history.
Unprecedented effects caused by the global pandemic led to an accelerated creation of opportunities within the telehealth market. After the American government eased up on healthcare regulations and defined a reimbursement model, high-quality healthcare immediately became accessible to a broader range of patients. In turn, more physicians were able to participate in virtual care solutions for the first time and were no longer confined to practicing within the walls of their clinics. The pandemic finally defined a fair reimbursement model allowing patients to continue seeing their regular doctors, ultimately improving their continuity of care.
Typically, physicians will see anywhere from 20 to 30 patients a day within their clinics. However, through virtual care solutions offered by telehealth medicine, some physicians can see double the number of patients per day. Many physicians continue to have hybrid schedules where a specific section is partitioned out for telehealth-only visits. This allows physicians to continue to see their current patient roster without the need for as long as a typical wait time.
Challenges within the Telehealth Marketplace
- Narrowing of the Marketplace
It is difficult for patients to have a myriad of telehealth and video conferencing solutions all installed on their devices. There will be some market narrowing in the near future of the key players involved in the telehealth market. Prior to the pandemic, many of the solutions clinics were implementing were telehealth-specific software and not the regular video conferencing applications. However, as mass deployment during the pandemic caused many organizations to sign contracts within a day, cost became a key factor. For instance, Zoom and Microsoft Teams are much lower cost than most telehealth solutions that allow doctors to practice video conferencing services through a private partnership between clinics and these platforms. In order for telehealth-only software to thrive, it must compete against lower-cost solutions offered within the telehealth marketplace.
An example of this can be seen in the 2016 contract between the University of California – San Francisco Health and Zoom. The partnership provided each doctor and clinician a separate link to access video conferences, as well as a separate virtual waiting room.
To effectively compete with lower-cost solutions, the ideal telehealth system must allow for seamless integration. These solutions will have to provide a better service than their lower-cost competitors, making the investment worthwhile.
- Integration Consistency
Due to the frantic nature and rapid rise of confirmed COVID cases seen across the US, telehealth solutions were quickly and hastily developed to provide emergency relief to healthcare providers and patients. Physician and patient workflow were secondary to speed to implement and often only lightly considered. Telehealth solutions needed to be deployed almost overnight, so the thoughtfulness groups typically pay to solutions had to be delayed.
Now that we have adjusted to our new normal, it is time to pay more attention to the physician and patient experience. An ideal telehealth solution should be tightly integrated with a patient’s calendar, physician’s calendar, patient portal, and EHR.
Ideally, systems should automatically push appointments into the physician’s schedule and patient’s calendar. These systems should automatically send a link to the patient and healthcare provider with easy-to-follow appointment instructions. Lastly, telehealth systems must be integrated into the EHR, allowing physicians to easily chart information while communicating with the patient.
Even though the telehealth marketplace has made tremendous progress over the past year, there remains quite a bit of interoperability work between EHRs with telehealth solutions.
- 3. The Uncertain Future of Reimbursement
Working so closely within the medical billing sector of the healthcare industry, we are constantly exposed to the complications that come with reimbursement. Payment policies ushered in by the pandemic were challenging to navigate in the beginning. Now that things are more clearly defined, the future of the payment model is still quite uncertain.
Traditionally, many commercial payers have centered their reimbursement policies based upon Medicare. Because of this, it is critical that we have a more forward-looking and clearly defined approach to how telehealth will be handled. This will allow for organizations to feel more certain about their investments in the future of telehealth.
The Future of Telehealth
Due to the expanding nature of telehealth and its surging popularization among healthcare providers and patients during the pandemic, it’s easy to see the clear benefits of using telehealth services.
However, in order for telehealth to continue to thrive, it is critical for new policies to address reimbursement policies and licensing laws directly. Additionally, both doctors and patients should continue to advocate for payer contracts with health groups to maintain consistent reimbursement models. Without them, there’s no feasible way to pay for telehealth services.
Although many people see the upcoming years as a transitional period filled with uncertainty – we should continue to build and expand upon telehealth, while advocating for meaningful change to healthcare policies and laws.