Not even six months ago, telemedicine served as a supplement to a hospital’s digital strategy. It was more of a novel offering, considered a nice-to-have or an add-on — not the norm — only used under rare and extraordinary circumstances.
Of course, that was before a pandemic turned life, as we know it, on its head. Social distancing became the decree overnight, and many businesses were forced to shutter, at least temporarily. The healthcare industry bore the brunt of this burden: Nonessential care was paused, and hospitals cleared out to make room for patients who had contracted COVID-19. With ERs brimming with new cases daily, telemedicine suddenly became a lifesaving tool, used to triage patients and provide care in the interim.
But in the mad dash to get up and running with a virtual solution ASAP, many hospitals failed to get a standardized system in place. Instead, they wound up with a hodgepodge of technologies that fulfilled an immediate need as COVID cases spiked — but no platform that would be viable long term.
Emergency stopgaps created longer-term problems
At the onset of COVID-19, consumers panic-purchased hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and other essential household items, emptying grocery store shelves across the United States. At the same time, hospitals leapt into survival mode, “pandemic-purchasing” telehealth solutions to carry them through this crisis.
Any solution was better than no solution. During the initial period of shelter-in-place mandates, telemedicine kept at-risk patients out of inundated hospitals and ERs while enabling physicians to keep their virtual “doors” open to those in need. The downside, however, was that these hastily adopted platforms introduced new and unplanned-for problems, from security breaches to dropped calls, pixelated video, and poor audio quality. Overall, what unfolded was a less-than-ideal and largely frustrating mess that might have turned patients off entirely.
For their part, patients proved to be forgiving of technology glitches early on. Many were happy to see their doctors at all! But over time, that sentiment has waned. Today, patients have higher expectations for a seamless telehealth experience — otherwise, they’ll seek care elsewhere.
The convenience factors that draw patients to telemedicine in the first place also make hospitals vulnerable to patient leakage. Instead of traveling from clinic to clinic, hunting for a doctor with the right expertise, availability, price point, and disposition — a process that could take months — patients can “test-drive” their options from home. With another source of care always around the corner, you can’t let a bad telemedicine experience give patients a reason to move on.
Telemedicine is rewriting the rules of care delivery
A silver lining to this awful pandemic is that we’re learning a lot about patient behavior and the future of healthcare. Contrary to popular opinion, it turns out patients actually enjoy the telemedicine experience. They’re not only more likely to seek care virtually, but telemedicine even helps them adhere to prescription and wellness regimens. This is good news for hospitals and advantageous to public health as a whole.
It’s easy to understand the attraction. Telemedicine saves patients over 90 minutes of precious time that otherwise would have been wasted commuting and waiting to be seen by a doctor. In a sense, telemedicine mirrors the everyday consumer experience we have come to expect from other industries — that is, it’s always available, at patients’ fingertips, in the comfort of one’s own home.
Hospitals and clinics have discovered the many benefits of telemedicine, too. Not only can they continue to care for their patient base and communities, but they are also able to reach new patients in unexpected geographies and demographics. Hospitals that went live with robust and easy-to-use telemedicine early on are already rebounding in terms of patient engagement and expanding their market share.
4 must-ask questions about your hospital’s telemedicine platform
Things feel different today. Health experts have a better understanding of the virus, how to treat it, how to protect against it, and how it spreads. But we’re not out of the woods yet — for from it, in fact. Telemedicine continues to be instrumental in keeping patients away from the hospital — and harm’s way — while getting the care they need.
As the country settles into a new sort of normal, healthcare executives are realizing that onboarding with a robust, secure, and stable telemedicine solution is prudent to their current — and future — prosperity and success. They are taking the time now to find a telehealth platform with permanent staying power. Physicians who were reluctant to embrace the digital wave are now coming around. They have discovered telemedicine is a tool that keeps them and their patients safe while enabling them to keep practicing — and even grow their business — during these chaotic times.
So, hospitals face a new challenge: How do you find a telehealth platform that’s the “right fit” to replace any quick-fix solution implemented under extreme duress? Since telemedicine can vary drastically across critical factors like compliance, convenience, quality, and features, choosing a new platform isn’t easy. Keep the following questions in mind as you’re going through the process.
1. How straightforward and patient friendly is the telehealth solution? Easy-to-use technology is key to driving adoption. Asking patients to download and install an app or create a new account is a hard-to-overcome barrier that will turn many away. Streamline the process so patients can start using your telemedicine platform in as few steps as possible.
2. How secure is the software? Relaxed HIPAA regulations gave way to non-healthcare-specific solutions — like Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and Google Duo — being suddenly up for grabs. But deploying these familiar consumer-facing platforms gave rise to a new set of concerns, like “Zoombombings” and privacy issues that made sensitive information unsafe. Plus, without full HIPAA compliance, many are set to expire as soon as the rules are enforced once again.
3. How clear is the audio and video? Patients don’t want to sacrifice quality for the sake of a remote appointment — and they shouldn’t have to! Effective telemedicine will mirror an in-person experience; i.e., patients will be able to hear and see their physician just like they would in the examination room. This will help patients feel comfortable with and confident in the experience, especially if it’s their first time. Invest in high-quality video, audio, and lighting equipment, and conduct each appointment in high definition to reduce miscommunications and, perhaps more troubling, misdiagnosis. Inform physicians of best practices for etiquette during a virtual visit, including the environment they’re set up in, dress code, and on-camera demeanor, to effectively bring their unique bedside manner to the screen.
4. How does the solution integrate into your hospital’s digital roadmap and long-term goals? Many healthcare organizations are in the rebuilding process, trying to make up for revenue lost during a period of downtime. As you begin to reopen — virtually and in person — translate increased patient traffic into positive reviews that bolster your online reputation. Drive patient acquisition and further cement your hospital’s brand by collecting reviews following each great experience. Look for a telehealth solution that integrates reputation management to capitalize on this massive opportunity.
Just a few months ago, how our day-to-day was about to change would have seemed inconceivable. And yet, here we are. Working from home has become a way of life, not a job perk; social interactions have shifted to the computer screen; and mass homeschooling is poised to be the norm for the foreseeable future. The healthcare industry met this challenge with telemedicine to protect their business, employees, and patients.
Virtual visits present significant benefits beyond safety and social distancing. They help patients keep appointments — reducing cancellations and no-shows — as well as stick to their treatment plan. Healthcare organizations that get the right telemedicine framework in place now to meet patient demand will realize significant ROI in the months and years to come.