IT Forefront

How to stand up telehealth fast for Covid-19—without undermining your long-term success

by Gillian Hughes, Sarah Hostetter, and John League

With the spread of Covid-19, telehealth is quickly shifting from a "nice-to-have" to a "need-to-have" service for most ambulatory physician groups. But some groups question whether setting up a robust telehealth platform is worth the investment right now. Physician groups must balance the need to generate revenue now with the assumption that telehealth is going to remain a critical part of ambulatory strategy moving forward. 

Cheat sheet: 3 imperatives to leverage telehealth against COVID-19

Designing a telehealth strategy that pays off now—and in the future

During the Covid-19 epidemic, Medicare and many private payers are reimbursing for telehealth at the same rate as in-person visits for dozens of purposes. Medicare has also loosened regulatory requirements so that providers can bill for visits on everyday technologies, like Skype and FaceTime, and for some audio-only telehealth visits. At the same time, it's safe to say that patient—and provider—acceptance of virtual visits has increased with this increased exposure to virtual platforms.

For many physician groups, the relaxed requirements on Medicare-covered telehealth visits present a viable way to start making up for revenue losses brought on by Covid-19. However, it's not clear whether CMS will maintain telehealth reimbursement rates when the public health emergency subsides, and it's likely that some of the relaxation in telehealth regulations that allow for less secure platforms like Skype and FaceTime, will go away once providers are able to return to normal operations. In both scenarios, organizations could be left without a viable telehealth platform.

That's why it's important for physician groups to plan for their future telehealth use now when these barriers to telehealth adoption are down and social distancing requirements are expected to continue for some time. Groups that stand up platforms they can continue to rely on after the public health emergency subsides may be better positioned to regain volumes both in the short- and long-term.

Laying the foundation for continued virtual care

Even if your organization cannot make the investment in a sustainable telehealth platform now, there are still steps you can take now to prime patients to continue to take advantage of virtual options in the future. Here are five conversations you should have with your patients now to make sure they're taking advantage of current telehealth options and are prepared to use it in the future:

  1. Let patients know that they can do most visits virtually for now. Many patients will not be used to seeing their provider virtually or assume that they should only do so for urgent needs. Make sure patients know that they have an option to see you virtually for most visits types now and what technology they'll need to use your virtual platform.

  2. Ask patients if they like the virtual interaction and if they would want to keep doing visits this way in the future. While telehealth acceptance has generally gone up, some patients may still face obstacles to virtual care after the epidemic. Be sure to assess individual patients' comfort with telehealth and see if there are any barriers they may face to making it a part of their future care.

  3. Help patients start to understand that not all visits will be appropriate for virtual channels when social distancing measures are relaxed. Even when in-person visits will return, groups using billable platforms should continue to incorporate virtual options into patient care. But it will be important to help patients distinguish which visit types are best for virtual settings and which require in-person visits. The data and firsthand experience that providers gain during the Covid-19 epidemic should guide recommendations to patients for the best uses of virtual visits.

  4. If you aren't using a secure, integrated platform now, let patients know that you'll eventually need to host virtual visits in a different way. Make sure patients know that even though you can use platforms like Skype and FaceTime right now, this will change in the future. Explain that this is an exception to accommodate the current public health emergency and how your group plans to transition to a different, more secure platform in the future.

How Covid-19 is transforming telehealth—now and in the future

Covid-19 has transformed telehealth from a “nice-to-have” program into an essential element of care delivery. Parallel demands to limit patient travel, prevent potential exposure, and preserve clinical capacity all have telehealth as a solution.

The sudden attention from providers, payers, and consumers will also have enormous consequences for telehealth adoption in the future.

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