The Doctor is In Online

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The telehealth revolution faces its next challenge: converting skeptics 

By Caroline Brennan

Across the country and around the world, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted lives and livelihoods in ways both big and small. With the recognized need for social distancing, the use of technology for remote work environments and virtual meetings has become standard practice across a wide range of industries. Healthcare is no exception. Even before the pandemic and related quarantines and shutdowns, telehealth was already being utilized more frequently by many healthcare professionals and institutions as a way to provide more efficient care and consultation to a wider range of patients.

But pandemic necessity has elevated a previously niche offering and is slowly becoming mainstream standard practice for many patients and providers. Telehealth has the potential to be a suitable alternative to in-person care. At Escalent, we wanted to understand just how popular telehealth has become, so we asked. Our research indicates that 82% of those who have already used telehealth anticipate using telehealth again in the future. While this figure shows that telehealth has been broadly accepted as an effective form of care, providers are still faced with the challenge of inspiring the portion of their patients who remain skeptical or reluctant to try telehealth service for the first time. Taking a closer look at the published consumer data and better understanding patient perspectives on telehealth is a critical first step in overcoming that challenge, and continuing to grow telehealth service as a standard part of any healthcare practice’s offerings. The information reveals valuable insights into what steps telehealth providers can take to spur greater telehealth adoption—and how to continue to evolve the model to enhance provider and patient satisfaction alike.

The fact that more than four in five patients who have used telehealth services view their experiences positively and plan to use telehealth again is encouraging information. But that’s only one piece of a larger puzzle. Getting a fuller picture of consumer appetite for telehealth solutions means understanding that only 36% of patients have used telehealth. The remaining 64% is roughly evenly split between those who are open to using telehealth (48%) and those who do not wish to try it (52%). In other words, we can divide the patient population into three groups of similar size: one group of telehealth users and advocates, one group that is open to using telehealth, and one group that is deeply skeptical and has no plans to use telehealth services.

Among that last group—which constitutes, remember, approximately one third of all patients—the reason most often cited for not wanting to utilize telehealth service as part of their medical care is the lack of face-to-face interaction. They view a video call as a poor replacement for being in the same room as their doctor or medical professional. Other reasons commonly provided by this group of telehealth skeptics include quality of care concerns and worries about the accuracy of diagnoses. Interestingly, while few point to logistical concerns or general discomfort with technology, a closer look at the demographic breakdown reveals some noteworthy differences between age cohorts. Specifically, while telehealth users and non-users are an even split among survey respondents  between the ages of 35 and 64, differences become apparent between younger respondents (ages 18-34), a group that makes up 31% of users versus 23% of non-users, and older respondents (65+), a group that is responsible for 19% of users versus 27% of non-users.

Overcoming barriers for use and making the user experience more positive and fulfilling for patients is critical for providers who wish to expand and retain their pool of telehealth users. It’s important to recognize that while those who have exposure to telehealth are less concerned about quality of care, they also report missing the face-to-face aspect of traditional in-person care. To some extent that is an unavoidable (and, to anyone forced to limit their interactions with loved ones during the pandemic to virtual meetings, understandable) compromise inherent to any virtual meeting platform. But healthcare providers need to be aware of the issue and do what they can to address it.

In a general sense, these results would seem to indicate that while telehealth providers spend a great deal of time and money creating a reliable technical and logistical infrastructure for telehealth services, they should make sure they are devoting equally significant resources training and enhancing the digital interaction skills of medical professionals, and finding ways to bolster patient engagement and improve the patient experience. 

Specifically, that includes things like:

Emphasizing the importance of bedside manner. 

Poor bedside manner is extraordinarily toxic to patient engagement and retention—and that doesn’t change if the bed is virtual in nature. Awkwardness or discomfort can actually be more evident on-screen than in person, and providers would be well-served to recognize that patient interactions in a telehealth setting require a very difference skillset than in person. Building these “soft skills” with specific emphasis on how to connect and communicate effectively with patients in a virtual environment should be a priority for providers.

Establishing clear and consistent communication

Expectations inform experiences. Which is why it’s so important to let patients know well before their telehealth appointment exactly what they can expect throughout the process. Provide clear and complete information about how to use the platform and navigate the appointment process. Additionally, make the benefits of telehealth clear to both current and prospective users. Don’t rely on them to recognize those benefits. Let them know exactly how much time they are saving. Remind them of the safety and convenience of checking in with their doctor from the comfort of their own home.

Implementing robust and specific training and support

Telehealth training and support is essential, not just for the doctors and medical professionals providing care, but for the support staff who help make the patient experience a seamless—and painless—process. Make sure there are established policies and procedures for check-in and post-appointment follow-up. Leaving a patient stuck staring at a blank screen with no idea what to do or how long to wait can sour an otherwise positive experience. Like any other business, focusing on improving the user experience is essential, especially at a time when patient-centric care is such an urgent priority for providers.

While telehealth is on an unprecedented rise as the result of the global health crisis we all currently face, the same barriers to adoption remain for those wary of the service. With that in mind, healthcare institutions and professionals would be wise to continue to gauge patient response to telehealth, gather information directly from patients (both users and non-users), and use that information to inform and improve the virtual patient experience and the overall quality of the telehealth services they provide.

Caroline Brennan is a vice president in the Health division at Escalent. Caroline has over 24 years of market research experience with both professionals and consumers across many therapeutic areas such as neuroscience, oncology and rare diseases. She can be contacted at Caroline.Brennan@escalent.co

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