By David Thompson
Consumers are increasingly choosing telehealth encounters over visits to the doctor’s office or the ER. In fact, it’s estimated that by 2020, 78.5 million consumers will be using e-Health applications. Why? It boils down to cost and convenience: telehealth encounters are convenient and easy to fit into busy schedules and lifestyles, and they often cost less than a clinic, urgent care, or ER visit.
Telehealth is also growing because it offers a number of benefits for healthcare professionals. These include improving patient access to care, delivering a more consistent workflow, and facilitating better communication between healthcare providers along the care continuum.
Are you not sure if investing in a telehealth strategy is right for your organization? Consider the following ways in which this technology can give your organization a boost:
1) Expand Access to Care: The shortage of healthcare professionals is no secret. About 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas without easy access to primary care or specialty medical services. Hospitals, health systems, nurse advice lines, and medical call centers can use telehealth solutions to:
- Connect with patients outside clinics, urgent care, or emergency rooms using the patient’s preferred channel of communication, be it text message, web portal, or phone call
- Provide nurse-led telephone triage of patient symptom calls and nurse-led education for health information calls
- Deliver physician-led (or advanced practice provider) telemedicine care, such as audio and video encounters with patients in their own homes
Access to care can also affect patient satisfaction, and happy patients are more likely to return to your healthcare system and to you, as a provider of care.
2) Improve Consistency and Safety in Clinical Workflows: Recent e-Health technologies can also drive novel improvements in clinical workflow. For example, telehealth platforms can help your staff:
- Capture the reason for the visit quickly and accurately: What is the patient’s chief complaint?
- Prioritize care delivery: Who should the nurse or doctor speak to first?
- Suggest the most relevant telephone triage guidelines for medical call center nurses: What is the best treatment guideline for the patient’s chief complaint?
- Identify health information resources: What additional information or Internet resources could be shared with the patient?
Keep it simple. Did you know that e-Health technologies can use natural language processing that takes patient free-text input (“I have chest pain and trouble breathing”) and translate that into data? This natural language processing codes the patient text for chief complaint, acuity, and SNOMED and ICD10 codes.
This pre-process structured data can then be used by a telehealth platform to automatically place patient cases in rank order, based on the severity of the individual’s chief complaints. The telehealth platform can also automatically red flag higher acuity cases for more immediate attention or prioritized follow-up.
A nurse or a doctor can then speak with patients based on their order in the queue, using acuity level, arrival in queue, and time in queue.
3) Facilitate Communication Between Providers Along the Care Continuum: All too often, patient information exists in silos. There are virtual walls between the medical call center nurse, the telemedicine provider, the hospital, and the primary care provider. Successful healthcare organizations and providers are looking for and implementing ways to facilitate communication between providers along the care continuum.
Successful care will be measured by how well healthcare organizations and providers:
- Capture patient information as data rather than as narrative
- Store patient information in an organized manner
- Use patient information to improve medical decision-making;
- Transmit this data to subsequent providers along the patient’s continuum of care
- Leverage such data to improve medical care, speed up care delivery and reduce costs: better, faster, cheaper
For Example: John Gomez, a 22 year old, has had worsening ear pain for two days.
- Pre-process: John calls and speaks with a non-clinical service representative who works with his doctor. She obtains John’s demographic information, transcribes his chief complaint, and assists him in completing an online “rapid medical history” for ear pain. The telehealth platform lists recommended care options based on John’s symptoms, his availability, and his doctor’s preferences. The service representative then arranges a telemedicine encounter.
- Process: The doctor reviews the rapid medical history, validates this information during the telemedicine encounter, and provides treatment recommendations.
- Post-process: A nurse in a centralized medical call center contacts John in two days to make sure he is following treatment recommendations, getting better and has no further questions.
Real-world Healthcare: Telehealth technology isn’t a panacea for all healthcare issues, but it can be an effective tool that healthcare organizations should consider for their changing patient and business needs.
Consider the following:
Use of telehealth is growing:
- Over two thirds (67 percent) of patients using telehealth last year said it somewhat or significantly increased their satisfaction with the care they received.
- Telehealth is increasingly being promoted by employer-sponsored benefit plans and major health plans as a covered clinical service. In fact, 74 percent of employers said they plan to offer telehealth benefits within their benefit plans this year.
- The cost of a virtual encounter is significantly less (close to half the cost) than an ER or primary care visit.
Telehealth can support business growth for healthcare companies by:
- Establishing a more efficient workflow and allowing healthcare providers to do more with fewer clinical resources
- Allowing health systems to incrementally increase their cash flow
- Delivering a consistent and accurate diagnostic and care plan experience to patients
Telehealth can contribute to the greater good by:
- Improving quality of care while reducing costs
- Helping providers and health systems keep up with the ever-changing healthcare delivery landscape
- Providing an answer to the existing and future care delivery bubble of physician shortages combined with the influx of baby boomers requiring medical care
As healthcare continues to evolve and as consumers become increasingly engaged in their day-to-day health and the care they receive, telehealth technology is sure to continue its rapid growth. Innovations in care delivery, healthcare consumerism, regulatory standards for providers, and technological capabilities will fuel this growth. Be sure to stay informed and continue to ask the question: how can we use telehealth technology to deliver a better experience for our customers and patients, while improving outcomes and financial performance?
David Thompson, MD, CHC, FACEP is CEO and chief medical officer at Health Navigator. A part-time faculty attending in the Northwestern Memorial Hospital Emergency Department, Dr. Thompson also serves as chief medical information officer for ECI Healthcare Partners and works as an author and partner with Self Care Decision, LLC and Schmitt-Thompson Clinical Content, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.