As the consumer experience in healthcare has increasingly been characterized by convenience and cost-effectiveness, the role of telehealth and virtual care has become more prominent.
For years, telehealth has promised patients access to healthcare at any time, virtually anywhere, giving consumers the opportunity to communicate with their providers in both synchronous and asynchronous ways. And although in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic consumer telehealth use was somewhat tepid, most experts agree the time is ripe for this virtual care modality to become a mainstay in the consumer experience.
“In the beginning of 2020, telehealth was still very much a novelty,” according to Mike McPartland, director of virtual health at Cerner. “The pandemic changed that in a big way.”
Reporting from McKinsey shows that telehealth utilization has dropped off since its peak highs after the initial onset of the pandemic, McPartland acknowledged. However, consumer access is still 38 times higher than it was before COVID-19.
“At a more granular level, demand for virtual care remains especially high across behavioral health specialties,” McPartland added. “In-person engagement will always remain an element of healthcare delivery, but there will be a shift towards more hybrid engagement models.”
That thirst for convenient care, coupled with the potential for lower out-of-pocket costs, is creating the perfect environment for consumer telehealth utilization and access to flourish. As healthcare providers confront a future of hybrid virtual and in-person care, they must consider the benefits telehealth brings to the consumer, as well as the key challenges they’ll have to overcome to assure a good consumer experience.
Telehealth’s consumer experience benefits
Data has shown that consumer satisfaction with telehealth and virtual care is high, and it’s no doubt why. Telehealth can bring convenience and cost-effectiveness that is essential to a good healthcare experience.
“There really are quite a few advantages for providers and patients alike, including cost savings, convenience, and really the ability to provide care wherever whenever to people all around the world,” according to Paige Rodenberg, senior manager of product management for behavioral health at Cerner. “Some patients have mobility limitations or social determinants of health limits, or maybe they live in rural areas where they don’t have access to a local doctor, a local clinic, or a local provider. So really, it’s opening up the world to accessibility and affordability for all.”
This has been especially salient for healthcare providers delivering specialty care or care to a traditionally underserved population. States have successfully deployed virtual care to deliver much-needed behavioral health in jails and prisons, for example, while telehealth has served as an opening to subspecialty care.
“From a network perspective, telehealth and virtual health also offer a multiplier effect extending limited specialty and subspeciality resources, creating more opportunity for lower acuity engagement, and reserving physical resources (beds, equipment, etc.) for those who need it most,” McPartland said.
And once healthcare consumers have gotten their feet through that virtual clinic door, clinicians have a new set of tools to help them better understand, and therefore engage with, their patients.
“Telehealth and virtual care enable more pathways for providers to engage patients and their families, as well as allow providers the ability to maintain a level of continuity that simply cannot be realized through physical interaction alone,” McPartland said.
Healthcare professionals have used telehealth to see consumers in the context of their everyday lives, providing a window into social determinants of health or looping in family caregivers.
Confronting telehealth challenges
Although important to improving the consumer experience, telehealth and virtual care utilization present challenges.
“Whether it’s in-person care or virtual care, the associated experience and outcomes are only as good as the tools at the provider’s disposal,” McPartland explained.
For example, telehealth appointments require several technical specifications that can support a quality patient-provider interaction. Virtual care visits need stable audio and video, but products don’t always provide that.
“Given the rapid adoption and utilization of telehealth and virtual care, scalability of quality audio and video has been an issue,” McPartland added. “So, while unique features and functions are important, it’s investment in the underlying solutions that is paramount. Without that, we’ll never be able to gain end-user trust and realize the hybrid future we want.”
Those technical challenges may also impact the consumer. Healthcare providers need to look into tools designed with patient health literacy, geographic location, and socioeconomic status in mind.
And in as much as reimbursement is concerned, healthcare organizations need to stay updated on the latest regulations from governing bodies like the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, HHS and its sister agencies afforded some telehealth flexibilities that could change in the future.
“These waivers are still in effect, but further legislative action is required to make these changes permanent and create a level playing field for the provision of care remotely,” McPartland said.
This also applies to flexibilities afforded to electronic signatures that helped consumers sign off on certain care plans remotely.
“We’re trying to figure out how to continue following the Joint Commission and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services regulations on electronic signatures and see how that evolves so patients can be anywhere and sign their treatment plans and be actively involved in the care that they’re receiving,” Rodenberg said.
Using telehealth, virtual care for a good patient interaction
As telehealth becomes a more ubiquitous part of the consumer experience, healthcare providers need to determine how to connect with consumers just as they would during in-person appointments. In other words, clinicians need to develop their “webside manner.”
“What does that look like from a virtual experience?” Rodenberg posited. “It’s maintaining eye contact, or assessing the environment that the patient is in.”
Clinicians should use the same interpersonal skills they leverage during in-person interactions, like motivational interviewing and empathy, to create a good rapport with clients during virtual care appointments.
And that’s not to mention the importance of having a professional appearance and demeanor. Healthcare professionals may meet with clients over telehealth from their own homes, but they should still dress the part of the clinician and limit distractions like pets and ambient noise, Rodenberg recommended.
Embracing asynchronous telehealth in the future
Although telehealth has proven itself helpful in meeting increasing consumer needs and demands, both Rodenberg and McPartland suggested that using the modality in a synchronous manner only will be limiting.
“Telehealth is used primarily as a synchronous means of engagement,” McPartland pointed out. “And while it addresses physical barriers to care it does not wholly solve for the capacity challenge we face in our industry or cover all the interstices of care delivery.”
Emerging forms of consumer engagement technology will play a role in keeping clients connected remotely, like chatbots or digital therapeutics, Rodenberg said.
As healthcare professionals continue to look for tools to provide whole-person care moving forward, these types of asynchronous options will be essential.
“That’s where I think other digital tools such as remote patient monitoring, digital therapeutics, and asynchronous care must be considered as part of a holistic virtual strategy,” McPartland concluded.