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Telehealth became an important aspect of clinical response to COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic and remains an essential tool for physicians to connect with patients.

At the Becker’s Healthcare Telehealth Virtual Forum on Nov. 2-3, healthcare executives from across the U.S. gathered to discuss the big challenges and opportunities in telehealth and virtual care.

Here are eight takeaways from the event:

1. Organizations that had already made investments in telehealth infrastructure in the last three to six years said they were better prepared to scale up virtual care services. Some of these systems still face practical challenges, such as webcams being on backorder, as they respond to an increased demand for telehealth services.

2. Telemedicine has been a lifeline for many U.S. health systems during the pandemic and offers a huge opportunity to expand access to care, but there are still barriers to care for individuals without broadband internet access or connected video-recording devices. Healthcare executives will be responsible for addressing these disparities in the future.

3. The role telehealth will play in healthcare delivery after the pandemic is contingent on a number of factors, including federal and state regulations, consumer demand and the type of care being delivered. While telehealth will almost certainly play a major role in behavioral health and primary care services, how it will integrate in specialty care is less clear.

4. To widen their digital front door, hospitals need to make digital workflows as simple as any other app that patients and physicians use. Hospitals also have to ensure patient information from a virtual visit is readily accessible in an EHR.

5. Artificial intelligence is used in a very basic form for telehealth today, typically in chatbots that interact with patients and triage them to the right level of care. However, there are seemingly endless possibilities for integrating AI into healthcare. Especially as healthcare organizations gather more information on telemedicine, AI can provide decision support about future treatment options and proactively suggest the most cost-effective treatment setting to patients.

6. Consumer and payer demand will drive the business model for telehealth after the pandemic. Patients will expect telehealth and virtual care options, and payers will incorporate telehealth into their value-based care models, but that transition will likely shift more risk to providers that are largely still in a fee-for-service environment.

7. Over the next five years, one of the biggest hurdles for new virtual care and telehealth technology will be the governance structure at health systems. It will be essential for providers to partner with vendors to make sure new technology and virtual care initiatives serve the patient population equally.

8. The pandemic has forced health systems to change the way they train clinicians and patients on telehealth. Health systems needed to innovate and take new approaches given the amount of demand they faced in a condensed timeframe. Leaders recommend creating training materials in chapters that are easy to update since platforms may change. 

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