Understanding Barriers to Telehealth Adoption

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What’s stopping telehealth’s rapid adoption? And why?

In May 2020, the World Economic Forum published an article on how telehealth could be a COVID-19 game-changer. The same article identified five barriers to telehealth adoption:

  1. Resistance to technical innovation. Healthcare IT is notoriously complicated and subject to strict regulatory and compliance codes. Adding technologies to this environment – even if it’s an established process, like videoconferencing – presents a number of difficulties.
  2. Slow integration of technology and medicine. The same problems apply here: a combination of complicated IT systems, strained budgets, and reluctance to take risks have resulted in a slower adoption of AI-based diagnostic, triage, and monitoring tools.
  3. Reimbursement issues. Payers’ business models haven’t fully caught up with telemedicine yet. Reimbursement rules on diagnosing and treating patients remotely may not exist or may limit what’s covered.
  4. Data sharing. Sharing patients’ medical records between providers is very necessary – and very fraught with issues. No one wants to put patients’ safety and privacy at risk in a new technology.
  5. Engaging/empowering patients. Patients are naturally hesitant to trust technical healthcare solutions. And, even though Internet connectivity and connected devices are common, some may struggle to use unfamiliar telehealth solutions.

These are serious obstacles that telehealth providers and service developers must overcome. And the best way to do that is to understand what’s behind these barriers.

What’s behind telehealth barriers?

We can further distill the above list into three basic problems:

  •  Risk aversion. Adding new capabilities to a working IT system, bringing virtual healthcare into an existing medical system, changing a business model, and sharing data outside of one’s immediate ecosystem are all risks. However, just because an element of risk is involved does not mean that something cannot be done or should not be tried.
  •  Fear. Closely related to risk aversion is fear: What if we break the system? What if something goes wrong? What if we invest in a new remote healthcare solution and no one uses it? Introducing new elements to workflows (and to patients’ lives) comes with an inherent amount of discomfort. To conquer this requires careful planning and thoughtful design, making each interaction as safe and familiar as possible.
  • Inertia. Change takes work. Learning a new technology takes time and effort. Developing new tools and workflows takes money. With many healthcare teams maxed out and patients leading stress-packed lives, it’s easier to do nothing. Our mental, physical, and financial bandwidth is limited and precious; it’s natural to conserve it by sticking to a familiar solution.

Removing telehealth barriers

The factors behind telehealth barriers are understandable; they’re rooted in human nature. Once we know what’s prompting slow telehealth adoption, we can begin to chip away at the restraints.

Having said that, managing change in healthcare is a complicated process. I recommend reading Star’s report A framework for developing game-changing telehealth for a detailed look at the five barriers identified by the WEF and how they can be overcome.

Going back to our three basic problems, however, we can certainly start addressing the root causes of reluctant telehealth adoption. To address risk aversion, we can be pragmatic and detail-oriented. What could possibly go wrong? Find out and prepare for it: build risk mitigation into the system, plan for errors and put in safeguards, accept that compliance and security are continual processes. To overcome fear, focus on the value and benefits of telehealth tools. Start with a small version that plays to your company’s strengths and use this to demonstrate what can be done. To eliminate inertia, eliminate friction; make things as familiar and easy to use as possible.

Barriers to telehealth can be overcome. And, in the current situation, it’s worth the effort to do so.

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