If you need proof that virtual care has hit the mainstream, look no further than UnitedHealthcare’s “Night Shift” ad. In the primetime television commercial, two very sleep-deprived new parents discover something unusual in their baby’s diaper and know they need to speak with a doctor right away, despite the late hour. Using the Virtual Visits option on her UnitedHealthcare plan, mom consults the doctor in the middle of the night, while dad ices the shoulder he hurt looking for mom’s phone in the dark. The video consultation with the doctor leaves the parents relieved that their situation—both the contents of the diaper and their sleep deprivation—is completely normal.
This humorous look at a virtual visit shows just how convenient it is. But the potential use cases run the gamut from managing chronic health issues and providing acute care to mental health assessments, nutrition counseling, and post-discharge monitoring. Each use case has multiple benefits for both patients and healthcare organizations, including professional care in the comfort of a patient’s own home, resulting in a better quality of life. Providers also see incredible benefits, including better staff utilization. For example, doctors can do “virtual rounds,” allowing surgeons to conduct rounds between operations rather than waiting until all their surgeries are complete. In addition, providers can serve more patients, hospitals have more open beds for those who need them, and clinics can provide quicker access to specialty providers for consults.
Most healthcare delivery organizations (HDOs) have already made virtual care an important part of their strategy. In fact, telehealth, alongside other mission-critical initiatives, has made its way to the top of the priority list for most HDOs, with significant budget resources to support it. At this point, it’s fair to say that “telehealth” has become “healthcare.”
According to a recent survey of more than 300 clinical and information technology professionals with decision-making authority over telemedicine and telehealth investments and practices, more than three-quarters of the respondents are already using telehealth services or plan to use them in the near future. These HDOs understand that if they want to maximize positive patient outcomes and expand access to care while reducing costs, they must invest in telehealth and make it a fundamental part of delivering healthcare services.
Remaining skeptics can learn from the leaders
While most HDOs have bought into the benefits of telehealth, some remain reluctant to begin offering such services. They worry about the cost and complexity of the implementation, reimbursement structures, and the perceived disadvantages of video healthcare compared to in-person interactions in a clinical setting. They anticipate problems with their existing infrastructure—or lack thereof. As it turns out, the more than 300 HDOs surveyed reportedly anticipated issues more than they actually experienced them. According to the research:
- Two-thirds of survey respondents say patients are receptive to using telehealth.
- Two-thirds of respondents say telehealth technologies are easy for nurses and physicians to use.
- Most respondents say telehealth technologies are easy for patients to use.
With the evidence showing that a majority of organizations aren’t beset by their anticipated challenges, reluctant HDOs are out of excuses not to adopt telehealth practices. Not only is telehealth good for patients, it’s good for the bottom line. And hard return on investment (ROI) is the basis for a strong business case when justifying telehealth investments to your chief financial officer.
If your organization is still holding out, now is the time to get started. As you embark on your telehealth journey, here are a few pointers for a successful rollout with measurable ROI:
- Have a dedicated technical team. Information technology professionals can be a strategic resource and should work closely with clinicians as they implement telehealth. The information technology team understands what’s available in their facilities and they know about planned infrastructure improvements. They may also be more up to date on telehealth trends than clinicians.
- Look for technology and services that are interoperable with your existing systems. For the fastest time to ROI, look for a telehealth program that works with what you are already using. The ability to launch a video consultation within an existing interface like Epic MyChart makes telemedicine simple to use. Having to launch a separate application to conduct a virtual visit can break workflow and result in a loss of context around the patient encounter.
- Create a small, dedicated clinical team for your telehealth program(s). Start small, perhaps with a pilot project with existing clinical staff, then work toward integration into workflows. Later iterations should include a dedicated virtual health staff, but it’s important to get buy-in from current staff and move deliberately toward adoption.
- Have a dedicated budget and a five-year project road map. Two-thirds of survey respondents spend 20% or more of their total technology budget on telehealth products and services. This should give you an idea of what a dedicated budget might look like in your organization.
- Set the right key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure telehealth success. To understand whether your telehealth program is working, you must be clear about your intentions at the start of the project. While improving patient outcomes is the number one priority for HDOs, it’s important to set KPIs against a few different areas that are important to your organization’s business objectives, such as clinical efficiency, utilization, engagement, and quality. Drill down further into each of these categories with specific KPIs such as patient wait time, number of visits, connectivity issues, disconnects, and readmissions.
The right teams, budgets, and KPIs will vary from organization to organization. For example, the non-profit Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare (TMH) sees an incredible ROI from their telehealth investments, which is less than the 20% mentioned above. Lauren Faison, Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare’s administrator of regional development for population health and telemedicine, reports that the organization’s telehealth investment has saved them money by reducing inefficiencies, reducing unnecessary patient transportation, making providers more accessible and efficient, and reducing readmissions. Even without reimbursement, the amount of money saved allows them to shift funds to care for the uninsured.
Healthcare organizations owe it to their patients, their providers, and their financial stakeholders to offer telehealth services. As these services become even more mainstream, consumers will not only want but expect telehealth to be part of their healthcare delivery.
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