The COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed the transformation of Internet-based, remotely accessible innovative technologies. Internet-based customer service delivery technology was rapidly adopted and utilized by several services industries, but health care systems in most of the countries across the world faced unique challenges in adopting the technology for the delivery of health care services. The health care ecosystem of the United States was not immune to such challenges, and several significant barriers surfaced while the pandemic was underway.
Complexly structured, fragmented, unprepared, and overly burnt-out health systems in the United States arguably have fallen short of maximizing the value of telehealth in delivering safe, easily accessible, comprehensive, and cost-effective health care services. In this essay, we examine the reasons for such a suboptimal performance and discuss a few important strategies that may be useful in maximizing the value of telehealth value in several, appropriate health care services.
Hospitals and telehealth
Are hospitalists preparing ourselves “not to see” patients in a hospital-based health care delivery setting? If you have not yet started yet, now may be the right time! Yes, a certain percentage of doctor-patient encounters in hospital settings will remain virtual forever.
A well-established telehealth infrastructure is rarely found in most U.S. hospitals, although the COVID-19 pandemic has unexpectedly boosted the rapid growth of telehealth in the country.1 Public health emergency declarations in the United States in the face of the COVID-19 crisis have facilitated two important initiatives to restore health care delivery amidst formal and informal lockdowns that brought states to a grinding halt. These extend from expansion of virtual services, including telehealth, virtual check-ins, and e-visits, to the decision by the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights to exercise enforcement discretion and waive penalties for the use of relatively inexpensive, non–public-facing mobile and other audiovisual technology tools.2
Hospital-based care in the United States taps nearly 33% of national health expenditure. An additional 30% of national health expenditure that is related to physicians, prescriptions, and other facilities is indirectly influenced by care delivered at health care facilities.3 Studies show that about 20% of ED visits could potentially be avoided via virtual urgent care offerings.4 A rapidly changing health care ecosystem is proving formidable for most hospital systems, and a test for their resilience and agility. Not just the implementation of telehealth is challenging, but getting it right is the key success factor.
Expansion of telehealth coverage by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and most commercial payers did not quite ride the pandemic-induced momentum across the care continuum. Hospitals are lagging far behind ambulatory care in implementing telehealth. As illustrated in the “4-T Matrix” (see graphic) we would like to examine four key reasons for such a sluggish initial uptake and try to propose four important strategies that may help us to maximize the value created by telehealth technologies.
The health care system has always lagged far behind other service industries in terms of technology adaptation. Because of the unique nature of health care services, face-to-face interaction supersedes all other forms of communication. A rapidly evolving pandemic was not matched by simultaneous technology education for patients and providers. The enormous choice of hard-to-navigate telehealth tools; time and labor-intensive implementation; and uncertainty around payer, policy, and regulatory expectations might have precluded providers from the rapid adoption of telehealth in the hospital setting. Patients’ specific characteristics, such as the absence of technology-centered education, information, age, comorbidities, lack of technical literacy, and dependency on caregivers contributed to the suboptimal response from patients and families.
Deploying simple, ubiquitous, user-friendly, and technologically less challenging telehealth solutions may be a better approach to increase the adoption of such solutions by providers and patients. Hospitals need to develop and distribute telehealth user guides in all possible modes of communication. Provider-centric in-service sessions, workshops, and live support by “superuser teams” often work well in reducing end-user resistance.
Current electronic medical records vary widely in their features and offerings, and their ability to interact with third-party software and platforms. Dissatisfaction of end users with EMRs is well known, as is their likely relationship to burnout. Recent research continues to show a strong relationship between EMR usability and the odds of burnout among physicians.5 In the current climate, administrators and health informaticists have the responsibility to avoid adding increased burdens to end users.
Another issue is the limited connectivity in many remote/rural areas that would impact implementation of telehealth platforms. Studies indicate that 33% of rural Americans lack access to high-speed broadband Internet to support video visits.6 The recent successful implementation of telehealth across 530 providers in 75 ambulatory practices operated by Munson Healthcare, a rural health system in northern Michigan, sheds light on the technology’s enormous potential in providing safe access to rural populations.6,7
Privacy and safety of patient data is of paramount importance. According to a national poll on healthy aging by the University of Michigan in May 2019, targeting older adults, 47% of survey responders expressed difficulty using technology and 49% of survey responders were concerned about privacy.8 Use of certification and other tools offered by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology would help reassure users, and the ability to capture and share images between providers would be of immense benefit in facilitating e-consults.
The need of the hour is redesigned work flow, to help providers adopt and use virtual care/telehealth efficiently. Work flow redesign must be coupled with technological advances to allow seamless integration of third-party telehealth platforms into existing EMR systems or built directly into EMRs. Use of quality metrics and analytical tools specific to telehealth would help measure the technology’s impact on patient care, outcomes, and end-user/provider experience.
3. Teams and training
Outcomes of health care interventions are often determined by the effectiveness of teams. Irrespective of how robust health care systems may have been initially, rapidly spreading infectious diseases like COVID-19 can quickly derail the system, bringing the workforce and patients to a breaking point.5 Decentralized, uncoordinated, and siloed efforts by individual teams across the care continuum were contributing factors for the partial success of telehealth care delivery pathways. The hospital systems with telehealth-ready teams at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic were so rare that the knowledge and technical training opportunities for innovators grew severalfold during the pandemic.
As per the American Medical Association, telehealth success is massively dependent on building the right team. Core, leadership, advisory, and implementation teams comprised of clinical representatives, end users, administrative personnel, executive members of the organization, technical experts, and payment/policy experts should be put together before implementing a telehealth strategy.9 Seamless integration of hospital-based care with ambulatory care via a telehealth platform is only complete when care managers are trained and deployed to fulfill the needs of a diverse group of patients. Deriving overall value from telehealth is only possible when there is a skill development, training and mentoring team put in place.