Telehealth: A key component to keeping healthy during an outbreak

Chad Anguilm, Vice President, In-Practice Technology Services Electronic Health Records (EHR)

Doctor and patient telehealth

You’ve likely been reading about telehealth for years but haven’t made the leap because your population hasn’t been knocking down your door to try it or maybe you feel your patients won’t want to conduct a visit via a phone or computer. You aren’t alone, when it comes to healthcare IT, there are new features discussed each year, and it is difficult to know which features are strong investments to optimize your practice efficiency, reimbursements and patient experience, and which are a passing fad.

However, for each new feature or technology available, there is always an event that happens that propels you to launch. Years ago it was switching to an electronic health record to reduce the burden of paper records (both the amount of physical space they take up, the security issues paper files posed, and the difficulty in sharing records across a patient’s full care team). Then, you likely implemented tools such a patient portal and patient appointment text reminders for increased patient engagement.

In 2020, you will most likely be launching a telehealth program to service your patient population due to the spread of COVID-19 (commonly known as the “coronavirus”). COVID-19, from what health professionals are reporting, is spread much like influenza or the common cold. It can spread rapidly, especially in a waiting or exam room. COVID-19 is not the only reason to launch a telehealth program, but it likely will be the reason you’ll finally do it in 2020 – to protect our most vulnerable populations and to keep your staff and your healthy patients healthy, by screening those with suspected COVID-19 offsite to help control spread.

Many health systems are creating their “epidemic plan of action” for COVID-19. One of the essential strategies often overlooked is how to keep sick people not requiring face-to-face interaction, out of your office. By launching a telehealth program, patients with acute issues can meet with a healthcare provider and receive the care and guidance they need, in a remote capacity. Also, those suspected to have the virus, can be seen through telehealth services in locations set up as COVID-19 service centers instead of at every location. Offering remote roles for your staff via telehealth services can also be a very effective way to provide patient care without the risk of exposure.   

Many telehealth providers and even a few leading EHR companies are offering telehealth services that are not only cost effective but relatively turnkey. Integration is key when selecting any add-on technology service. Being able to care for your patient and simultaneously update their health record is safer and much more efficient than an onsite visit can be, and will also keep your healthy patients more likely to keep up with their well-visits if they know your office is a safe space. Beware of bolt-on technology services that have little to no integration and require duplicate entry of data, and look for  a service that is proven to work seamlessly with your EHR.

Launching a telehealth program in the face of an epidemic can force your organization into moving faster than you typical would, at a time when stress and uncertainty is already high. Your organization needs to implement an action plan developed to ensure your launch is tight and successful and keeps your staff online to handle daily workflow. The technology vendor you select likely has experience in setting up the technology, and there are many experienced consulting firms that can work elbow-to-elbow with your team to ensure the launch goes off quickly and without a hitch. 

These are the 8 Best Practices When Launching Telehealth:

  1. Partner with an experienced firm – this isn’t your typical tech launch which can be done in waves over 90 days. Partner with a firm who has helped other systems successfully meet similar goals to yours – and in a timeline that your organization is comfortable with.
  2. Remember buy-in during any implementation or workflow change – if your staff can’t understand why you are launching the service they will never buy in and it will fail.
  3. Set clear goals – and communicate those goals clearly and often (team meetings, memos, and postings in lunchrooms, or areas where employees go for breaks, etc.).
  4. Involve your staff – from front office to clinicians to your revenue cycle team, everyone needs to understand the program in-depth from front to back. Your scheduler is the person who kicks off the telehealth success or failure by scheduling the appointment and having the knowledge to advise the patient clearly how they will go through the process of a telehealth visit (typically a thorough explanation of a telehealth visit is only needed on the first appointment).
  5. Review state regulations and reimbursement guidelines – telehealth is much more widely accepted as a “reimbursed” service than it was even a year ago but there are likely new codes and documentation processes that need to be incorporated into current workflows.
  6. Select a technology vendor – work with your EHR vendor to see how their services works as well as a few other top EHR consulting firms specializing in telehealth to ensure you have all the capabilities to meet your goals.
  7. Market the service to patients – you can do everything right but if your patients don’t understand the service is there, it won’t be successful. Create a marketing plan that includes text messaging, portal messages and emails. Post telehealth information in your patient exam rooms and the lobby area, mail updates to patients, and let your patients know this is a service you are providing that should be covered by their insurance. Let your local news know you are offering the service – this may be a great update for current and potential patients in determining their care plan in this uncertain time.
  8. Circle back frequently – anytime you launch a new service you should reach out to those providing and using the service for recommendations and feedback as well as measure your success against the goals you set forth prior to launch.

The CDC will likely be releasing a recommendation on incorporating telehealth into your practice very soon so now would be a good time to get ahead of the curve. Also, on March 4, 2020, Congressional leaders agreed to a coronavirus response bill that will allow Medicare reimbursement for care providers using telehealth to treat seniors at home while also loosening restrictions on using the telephone to provide care. This spending bill will allocate nearly $6.5 billion to the US Department of Health and Human Services, including $2.2 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to address state and local preparedness. This will help enable the timely and effective treatment of patients in quarantine and at home with telehealth and virtual care technologies.

Why Launch Telehealth Services Now?

The time is now to create your action plan. A telehealth launch is much more than an add-on technology that you turn on and patients start using. But, with the right guidance and the right partner, telehealth capabilities can be implemented quickly and successfully. Partnering with a firm like Medical Advantage Group that rolls out telehealth on a national level can make the process painless and efficient, something that is very important in the face of an epidemic.

Connect with one of our telehealth experts today