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Telemedicine is here to stay. While telehealth programs have been gaining popularity for years, the COVID-19 pandemic cemented them as fixtures of American healthcare. Virtual care opens doors for both providers and patients, but implementing and maintaining a telehealth program isn’t easy. In this resource, we’ll explore the most common telehealth challenges and benefits, and how to strategize for success.

Table of Contents

  1. What is Telehealth?
  2. The Most Common Telehealth Challenges
    1. Challenges for Providers
      1. Regulations
      2. Scalability
      3. Reimbursement
    2. Challenges for Patients
      1. Security
      2. Access
      3. Service Awareness
  3. Benefits of Telehealth in Healthcare
    1. Benefits for Providers
      1. Patient Engagement
      2. Improved Reach
      3. Financial Benefits
    2. Benefits for Patients
      1. Accessibility
      2. Improved Outcomes
      3. Infection Prevention
      4. Dealing With Stigma
  4. Better Healthcare Staffing With Apploi

 

What is Telehealth?

Telehealth actually covers more than you might expect. It isn’t just doctor’s appointments over video calls. Telehealth can refer to any kind of healthcare, healthcare-related information, or healthcare education that is dispensed with digital technology. Using a chatbot or a symptom checker can qualify as telehealth.

Telehealth is often confused with telemedicine, but the two terms actually have different meanings. Telemedicine refers strictly to medical care, given by professionals to their patients, through digital platforms. While telehealth can include telemedicine, it’s not limited to clinical care. 

The Most Common Telehealth Challenges

Telehealth is an invaluable tool for many Americans. Still, there are telehealth challenges that affect both the patient and the provider experience. Here’s what to watch out for as you implement these virtual care technologies.

Challenges for Providers

Understand the issues health care providers and employers commonly face when using telehealth platforms. 

Regulations

Telemedicine is affected by the same laws as any other kind of clinical care. But there’s no single, centralized source for telehealth-related laws, and a lot has changed in the past few years. Regulations that were written before the advent of telehealth are simply outdated now. It will take time and sufficient stakeholder engagement for them to catch up with the current practice of medicine. Because of this, interpreting regulations can be very confusing. 

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Department of Health & Human Services released telehealth guidelines to help healthcare workers provide care safely and legally. With the emergence of a public health crisis, businesses had to provide telemedicine services more rapidly and widely than anticipated. To relieve the stress of providing care during the pandemic, HHS permitted some flexibility. HHS temporarily allowed providers to use video conferencing apps like Zoom and Skype for healthcare appointments, even if they weren’t fully HIPAA-compliant.

In another notice, the HHS stressed that providers still had a responsibility to protect patient privacy. To do this, providers should either use a fully HIPAA-compliant telemedicine platform or clearly notify patients of the risk associated with third-party apps. Providers are not allowed to provide care on public platforms, like Facebook Live or TikTok. 

To stay compliant, providers need to make sure their telehealth offerings are both federally and locally permissible. Federal and state-specific regulations are both involved with determining what care can and cannot be provided via telemedicine. It’s important to understand not only your digital platform requirements, but also the scope of practice that you can provide through telemedicine.

Scalability

Telehealth can only grow if it’s supported by both people and processes. Providers and patients have to genuinely want telehealth services. But beyond supporting telehealth in theory, users also need the skills involved with navigating new technology. To this end, healthcare employers must train employees and normalize using new technology in the workplace.

Reimbursement

Telehealth reimbursement policies and laws vary by state. Federally, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (or the CARES act) states that if a virtual visit qualifies for Medicare, it must be billed at the same rate as an in-person visit.

Adding to the complications, some insurance companies have pulled back their coverage for telehealth visits. In some cases, insurance companies are concerned that the popularity of telehealth during the pandemic has encouraged patients to seek unnecessary appointments. Insurance pushback can make it hard for businesses to get reimbursed properly (and quickly).

Challenges for Patients

Healthcare providers should also understand the telehealth challenges facing their patients. In order for telemedicine to grow in popularity and performance, these issues will need to be addressed.

Security

While HIPAA mandates that telehealth platforms must be encrypted, the federal government has allowed some increased flexibility during the pandemic. As a result, it is possible that patients are meeting with providers on platforms where their personal information may be more vulnerable to cyberattacks. 

At this point, providers should really be setting up their own telehealth systems that comply with HIPAA standards. Flexibility was helpful as the virus emerged, but a proper telehealth system is both more secure and easier to scale. 

Even outside of third-party apps, patients may have concerns about their privacy. The best way providers can help ease these concerns is through open communication. Inform patients about security measures in place, and abide by all applicable best practices and regulations.

Access

To first access telehealth, patients need certain technology in place. Healthcare leaders can’t take it for granted that their patients have reliable internet access. Many Americans do not—especially those with disabilities and those who live in tribal or rural areas. Unreliable internet and technical problems can seriously limit the use of telemedicine. Without internet access, a telehealth visit may take place over the phone, which significantly limits the practitioner’s ability to visualize the patient and provide treatment.

Accessing telehealth also requires patients to navigate a computer or a mobile device. For some patients, this is a real hurdle. Telehealth interfaces aren’t always accessible to people with limited mobility or cognition, and older Americans often don’t have smartphones that would allow them to participate in video calls. In these cases, the patients who might benefit the most from telehealth services are also the ones least likely to access them. 

Service Awareness

All else aside, there are plenty of Americans who technically have access to telemedicine, but don’t know it’s an option for them. They might think that telehealth is reserved for special circumstances or that they need to be invited to partake. A patient’s expectation that they won’t be able to access care can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Providers need to advertise these services. Otherwise, plenty of patients will never think to look for them.

One way to promote awareness of telehealth is by demonstrating it in the office. A coordinator could help the patient set up their device (and create an account, if relevant) and try a quick call before the end of a visit. This gives patients the chance to feel confident about using the technology and to ask any lingering questions. 

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Benefits of Telehealth in Healthcare

So, there are plenty of telehealth challenges to be aware of. But telehealth is more than that. It is a powerful tool that can help providers strive for a more effective, equitable, and accessible standard of patient care. Here are some of the primary telehealth benefits for the people who use it.

Benefits for Providers

How can telehealth make clinicians’ jobs easier and more fulfilling? By improving their ability to connect with patients without sacrificing quality, and driving sustainable profits. 

Patient Engagement

With a whole new way of contacting patients, providers have more opportunities to stay in touch. That can amount to better follow-up after an in-person visit or hospital stay, or better care for people with chronic conditions. 

Telehealth can be an unobtrusive way of keeping patients engaged with their care plan. Digital meetings generally don’t require patients to commute, take hours off work, or even get out of bed. This ease of access makes a huge difference. While access to wifi can still pose issues, telehealth is often more attainable for parents, people working multiple or inflexible jobs, and people with limited mobility.  

Improved Reach

Along with better patient engagement, telehealth can help bridge the gap between care providers and patients who don’t want to visit a healthcare facility during the pandemic. Reducing the number of patients that physicians see in person can also help prevent the spread of infectious illnesses within the healthcare business.

With telehealth technology, providers have more options for dispensing information. That flexibility can be just as helpful for the providers as for the patients. 

Financial Benefits

Implementing telehealth can be costly. Some estimate that it can take anywhere from $15,000 to $150,000 to get a telehealth platform up and running. But if this means more people will access digital care, there are also financial benefits.

It’s possible that pivoting in the direction of telehealth can reduce costs by putting fewer demands on a business’s physical location. But just as importantly, telehealth opens the door to more patients. The more people that can access care, the more a healthcare business can drive profits. 

Benefits for Patients

A strong telehealth program allows more patients to access important healthcare quickly. Telehealth’s ability to connect patients with specialists around the world is one its most promising and important features. 

Accessibility 

There are plenty of reasons it might be challenging or impossible for patients to attend regular in-person medical appointments. Telehealth has been a powerful tool for rural patients, members of the military, and incarcerated people. 

If people can’t access clinical care in person, telemedicine may be their best bet. In one study of telehealth in United States prisons, respondents reported high levels of patient satisfaction. Care providers also generally preferred providing virtual care to in-person hospital visits. Even though more patients were seen after telehealth was implemented, the waiting time for an appointment decreased by 50-57%.

In addition, pregnant and postpartum patients have had strong results with the use of telehealth. Mobile healthcare allows new parents to monitor their own health and the health of their children with fewer personal disruptions. 

Improved Outcomes

Because telehealth integrates easily into many patients’ lives, it gives providers more opportunities to offer care interventions. Gaining insights about a patient’s home environment can also help inform a provider’s treatment plan. 

Telehealth can improve patient outcomes in a number of ways. Fundamentally, telemedicine is just one more avenue for patients to get guidance and information about their health. This additional source of care has shortened hospital stays and even reduced mortality rates.

Dealing With Stigma

Some patients avoid in-person appointments due to stigma and fear of judgment. A patient who worries about sitting in a psychiatrist’s waiting room, for example, might skip the appointment rather than risk their sense of privacy. For sensitive and specialized health practices, telehealth can be a better guarantee that patients will actually access care.

Infection Prevention 

With telehealth use, immunocompromised and infectious people can access care with less risk to themselves and healthcare staff members. With remote patient monitoring, healthcare businesses can reduce the amount of contact between infectious patients and others, protecting staff and patient safety. 

At their best, telehealth programs allow people to access clinical services when they need them, quickly and safely. With a proper platform, adequate training, and skillful staff, you can tackle telehealth challenges and embrace this valuable option for providing care.

Better Healthcare Staffing With Apploi

Apploi helps employers source candidates, streamline hiring, and onboard new recruits. Hire painlessly to make a great impression on new applicants. 

Interested in learning more about how you can recruit, hire, and onboard healthcare staff quickly? Contact us today for a free demo of our end-to-end talent management solution.

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Pritma Chattha, DNP MHA RN

Pritma is a Yale-educated nurse executive with 18 years of experience advocating for patients at the bedside and in the boardroom. She currently serves as the Head of Healthcare Innovation at Apploi—healthcare's leading recruitment and credentialing platform. Over the last decade, Pritma has honed her expertise as a health informaticist, building and improving electronic health records and credentialing platforms. She is the immediate former Executive Director of Electronic Quality and Safety for Alberta Health Services, the largest health system in Canada. Pritma enjoys rethinking healthcare processes to provide safer, better, and more accessible healthcare. https://www.linkedin.com/in/pritma/