Jul 13, 2020



Crafting Your Telemedicine Approach Through the Coronavirus Outbreak

By Healthgrades Staff

Amid a widespread outbreak of the novel coronavirus, health systems are undergoing significant changes. One such change involves hospitals postponing non-emergency office visits to control the spread of the virus, spurring health systems to begin to investigate the merits of telemedicine. Then, telehealth-related restrictions were lifted on Medicare and Medicaid recipients and more than 140 million Americans gained access to telehealth services overnight. This put pressure on mainstream private insurers to provide competitive telemedicine coverage to swaths of new patients.

The joint force of these two factors prompted health systems to immediately begin promoting their telehealth initiatives – and some health systems even began building an entire telehealth approach from scratch. However, this sudden spike in demand has put many telehealth plans to the test. Previously, health systems reported that only 8% of the population had ever had a virtual doctor’s visit. This has changed dramatically in the coming months.

According to the Advisory Board, an East Coast health system conducted 1,400 telehealth visits during the entirety of 2019 – but once coverage was extended and in-person visits grinded to a halt, they matched that number in a matter of just three days. Much of the American population will try telehealth for the first time in 2020, and it’s reasonable to expect that the overwhelming majority of patients will continue to enjoy the convenience and reduced expenses that come with these telehealth initiatives.

This initial experience has altered patient perceptions regarding virtual care delivery and will create substantial, persistent demand for telemedicine services. Health systems must prepare a telemedicine initiative that will grow from a just-in-time, bandage solution into a competitive, robust aspect of the care continuum. Let’s outline the best ways to craft a telemedicine approach that will not only support a large volume of patients during the COVID-19 outbreak but continue to provide quality care for patients in the coming years.

5 Steps to Create an Effective Telemedicine Approach

Today, emergency rooms are receiving a massive volume of activity – but at the same time, non-emergency providers are experiencing a stark decrease in patient visits. This doesn’t just mean less income for the health system: It means that a large portion of the population is not receiving routine checkups or preventive care, increasing the risk that their conditions will be more advanced, causing complications and demanding extensive care.

Many health systems have already launched a basic telehealth program to remedy these gaps in care. However, to create an offering that will continue to build value for years to come, it’s best to start at square one. Here are five steps to build a comprehensive strategy, and organizations with existing telemedicine strategies need to refine their approach.

1. Outline your strategy

Think about what you’d like your telemedicine program to accomplish not only in the short term, but also the long term. When the threat of COVID-19 begins to subside, how will you deliver continued value and set your telemedicine approach apart? Defining the long-term direction of your telemedicine approach will help your organization create a program that’s fully worth the investment.

Accessibility is paramount when designing a lasting telemedicine strategy. Consider how the elderly, people with disabilities, and low-income individuals will access your service. All your patients deserve access to your telehealth offerings, so keep these considerations top-of-mind.

Integrate your telemedicine approach with technology such as EMRs, scheduling tools, and existing healthcare CRM software to easily organize patient data. Then, keep all data that’s associated with your telehealth system secure through measures such as multi-factor authentication or end-to-end data encryption.

Integration doesn’t begin and end with technology. It’s imperative that every team is involved and properly represented when designing your telemedicine approach. Multiple departments will need to work closely together — for instance, physicians will need to work with the call center to determine which appointments are taking place virtually, and what materials may be needed to provide the best care for the patient.

2. Outline your offerings

Consider the types of remote health services you would like to provide on an ongoing basis. For a base offering, all health systems should provide a real-time form of care through audio-visual means. Audiovisual offerings are more expensive, but they can generate a lot of revenue since they are covered by many kinds of insurance and are often seen as the gold standard for telehealth. Health systems can create additional telehealth offerings, such as chatbots for triage, to expand upon their existing programs.

It’s no small decision — your chosen offering will affect typical care delivery. Thankfully, there are a few questions that health systems can ask to help determine their ideal direction.

  • How comfortable are my physicians with telehealth? Will our current structure contribute to burnout?
  • Will appointments be available during regular hours, or will telemedicine enable more scheduling flexibility?
  • What kinds of services can you offer asynchronously, and which services must be offered over a live video feed?

These questions will help you determine exactly what you will accomplish with your telemedicine offerings, while understanding how it could impact other elements of care delivery. For instance, allowing physicians to work from home could improve their attitude towards telehealth in the long-term, but it may make scheduling more complicated.

3. Examine external considerations

While there are many internal considerations when crafting a telemedicine approach, be sure to examine external factors as well. For example, Medicare and Medicaid are only offering compensation for visits that take place over an audio-visual channel. If your health system would like to design offerings outside of the provider-accepted framework of telehealth, they should be offered at an accessible price, or postponed until they are fiscally feasible.

Then, look at existing state and federal regulations. Certain states will only allow health systems to provide telehealth services to patients with a pre-existing relationship and may require special licensing before providing long-distance health services. Health systems should also monitor any changes and ensure compliance with the telemedicine HIPAA guidelines set forth by the federal government.

4. Involve physicians

Give your physicians a seat at the table when discussing the logistics of your telemedicine program and collect their feedback about your current working strategy. Depending on your workplace culture, you may want to have one-on-one discussions, a group discussion, or even allow a physician’s concerns to be submitted anonymously. Physicians are going to be on the front line of any telemedicine initiative – so resolve as many of their concerns sooner rather than later.

Next, eliminate any sources of hesitation posed by physicians. They may be concerned about not having enough time in their day for both in-person and virtual visits or may worry about providing subpar care. Every hesitation and piece of criticism is an opportunity to provide the highest standard of care to patients, so take their concerns seriously and solicit feedback from physicians continuously.

5. Promote your telemedicine offerings

Marketing may not be top-of-mind in this challenging time, but proper outreach is crucial to informing patients about the value of your telemedicine offerings. Otherwise, you could lose them to a competitor – or worse, they won’t receive any care at all.

Once you’ve assembled a list of physicians who are accepting virtual visits, promote their telehealth and other services where patients are looking for care, including healthgrades.com, the #1 site that consumers use to find a doctor – so marketers should not overlook this resource.

Then, create a strong omnichannel initiative that will reach every patient in every service line offering virtual care in the most effective way possible. Do not overlook any channel – use online listings, paid search, social media, display advertising, email, television, and more, depending on the patient’s preferences. Leverage a contact center that’s integrated with a business insights solution or a well-maintained healthcare CRM to identify these preferences.

Use the data to your advantage and determine which marketing channels patients are most likely to respond to. For example, if a patient has a low open rate for emails, call or text their cell phone with notifications about your new offerings. Then, analyze behavioral data within a certain patient segment to create messaging based around their unique needs. For example, young people who are overdue for a follow-up visit may use telemedicine services if they are assured that their insurance covers it.

If this promotional process seems a bit daunting, there’s no need to dive in head-first. Start with trial runs in your most impactful service lines, and measure if your current outreach methods are resonating with patients. After a patient finishes their virtual visit, survey both patients and providers regarding their experience. Use this information to further refine your program and prepare it for a full, public launch.

Final Thoughts

Before the widespread outbreak of COVID-19, telemedicine was an afterthought that came second to in-person care delivery. Almost overnight, it transformed from a niche offering to a widespread solution. With public health challenges affecting care delivery, providers are desperate to form a telemedicine approach that meets consumer expectations while delivering high-quality care. This requires building a framework that prioritizes sustainability and continued value from the outset.

Telemedicine is no longer viewed as a small value-add but rather as an expected service. It’s not a technological bandage whose sole purpose is to overcome a temporary problem – it will permanently transform health systems, and fundamentally redefine the way we understand patient access and care delivery.

Telehealth: New Reality, New Strategy

Creating a healthcare experience that consumers really want – A free report sponsored by Healthgrades.