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What is the long-term prognosis for telehealth?


Scott E. Rupp

This article first appeared in MultiBriefs

In healthcare technology, throughout the past year, there's been little discussed as much as telehealth and telemedicine topics. The reasons for such are obvious given COVID-19. The volume of coverage the topic received is more than nearly any other time in recent history.

According to Google Trends, since 2008, telehealth hasn't received as much attention as it has in April 2020 — more than at any previous time by twofold. Before April, the most attention the topic received was in July 2019. Web searches for "telehealth" shot up 91% from February to March, but since receded by about 60% as of this writing.

The same trend line is showing itself now in the actual world of care. During the rush of COVID-19’s onslaught in March and April, health systems attempted to scale up and survive, so they invested in telehealth technology in addition to other programs like revenue cycle programs, according to a report from the Center for Connected Medicine and KLAS Research.

Despite the meteoric rise of awareness and the use of telehealth services during the quarantine, these same health systems are wrestling with how they will make long-term use of the technology when the pandemic winds down. Per the report, health system leaders who adopted telehealth want to improve integration, infrastructure, and security in the years ahead and focus on long-term telehealth decisions.

Thirty percent of those asked said they are unsure what their plans are if telehealth reimbursements return to pre-COVID levels; 13% of these folks said they'd return to face-to-face visits. Twenty percent said they'd continue doing virtual visits regardless, while 17% said they'd analyze the financial viability of continued use.

In the next year or so, many want to increase telehealth as a revenue stream and want more employees to work remotely. They also said they want to use more technology to monitor revenue cycle data for decision-making.

According to Bill Flatley, senior service delivery manager for OST, digital health platforms continue to become more robust and available. For example, a patient can take home a kit that takes vitals and flows that data back into the digital platform, integrating with an electronic health record. Thus, physicians will be able to provide better care by receiving more patient data.

However, impediments remain. One challenge is that of actually setting up the online interaction. “To minimize this, it is important to build new workflows within digital health platforms, and the electronic health record making a virtual visit seem like you are in person. When the patient is 'roomed' and confirmed to be online and ready, then the nurse and physician are brought into the video interaction. Once the session is established, the doctor can step in without having the burden of troubleshooting technology,” Flatley said.

“Hospital systems need to ensure whatever clinical workflow they have is physician-friendly, patient-friendly, and easily accessible while still focusing on digital health platforms and integration,” he adds. “The potential of increased data points available to physicians from remote technologies is also exciting."

“But for patients with chronic illnesses, digital health technologies in the home will not only be a supplement, it may provide a better standard of care."

Telehealth’s future is bright. Telehealth helps many overcome the challenges of visiting a doctor’s office, including taking time from work, managing schedules, finding a doctor, and managing transportation. Telehealth makes healthcare more accessible to patients and can lower the costs of it for those needing care.

According to Meleah Bridgeford, director of risk adjustment at Episource, telehealth is proving to be popular with at-risk patients. "Citizens, Senators, and providers called on CMS and HHS to make them permanent, and even the directors of these organizations came out in favor of telehealth. On August 3, the president issued an executive order calling on the HHS to review and propose a new payment model for telehealth services for rural patients and develop a plan for expanding the use of telehealth beyond the public health emergency," she wrote.

Telehealth is vital during COVID-19 and is proving to be a part of the future of healthcare. "Telehealth is a fixture of value-based care and an essential tool for the collection and incorporation of SDOH data and HCCs," she added.

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