What physicians need to make a telehealth program stand out

When I became a physician years ago, the idea of telehealth had barely taken hold among doctors or patients. Today, as we bask in the passage of the CHRONIC Care Act of 2017, we’re seeing dozens of use cases in stroke, emergent care, psychiatry and more that underscore telehealth’s potential.

Consumers are becoming increasingly digitally savvy too — and not just the millennials. Today, about one in five adults have tried telehealth — a number which, by all accounts, is expected to grow when new legislation takes effect and removes some of the biggest barriers to adoption. This means physicians will need to consider countless technology choices as they seek establish — or expand — their telehealth programs.

Here are a few key points I’d advise my physician peers to consider as they plan their telehealth rollouts:

Look beyond the screen. The video interface is, literally, the first thing that physicians see when they encounter a telehealth platform. But as at least one healthcare writer recently noted, nearly every telehealth platform offers stunning, high-definition video. Doctors need to dig deeper and examine the features behind the screen that support a telemedicine experience: Is the platform easy to use? Does it integrate with your clinical workflow? Is it compatible with your EHR?

Prioritize EHR integration. What’s not visible is as important as what’s visible when it comes to moving virtual encounters across the continuum, a process that can span multiple technology systems. A telehealth platform that is interoperable with your existing EHR ensures better continuity, minimizes interruptions and makes post-visit documentation easier — saving time and money and improving patient satisfaction. Organizations whose telehealth technology is integrated with their EHR have reported increased clinician adoption, an improvement in billing and other benefits.

Know your niche. A large hospital and a medical practice have different needs; for example, the latter doesn’t require tools to triage a patient in a high-volume ED setting. That’s why I always advise physicians to align with technology partners that understand their unique patient mix. For example, pediatricians may want to explore telehealth solutions that provide 24/7 online video access to live lactation consultants. If your medical practice attracts millennials, you may have to work harder to get their attention (they’re twice as likely as Boomers to use walk-in clinics and telemedicine).

Envision telehealth within your workflow. Telehealth workflows should support typical use cases. Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha is a great example of a healthcare group that established key performance indicators (KPIs) based on its patient population’s needs, and then worked with its technology vendor to design a telehealth program that allowed it to treat new and existing psychiatry patients remotely for all conditions typically seen in outpatient clinics: depression, anxiety, ADHD and autism.

Focus on virtual encounters. You can buy the best virtual care solution in the marketplace, but patients won’t use your telehealth program if the physicians who actually conduct virtual consultations aren’t properly trained in “web side manner,” the ability to build trust and rapport with a patient over a virtual visit. Understandably, not all doctors are naturally “camera ready.” But most can be trained to improve their video communication skills.

Fine tune in-clinic marketing. Your in-clinic marketing program is essential to messaging the value drivers of telehealth to patients while they’re in the clinic. Consider the success of Southwest Medical Associates, one of Nevada’s largest multi-specialty medical groups, which launched its telehealth service, SMA NowClinic, in 2014. Its in-clinic marketing program was key to getting the word out, utilizing multiple touchpoints to connect to consumers: When patients enters the clinic, they see a rack card and a tri-fold brochure alerting them to the telehealth clinic, floor vinyl signage and ceiling signage, plus a television panel that shows wait times at the telehealth clinics. To date, the organization has enrolled more than 30,000 patients and conducted more than 20,000 telehealth visits.

Talk to patients directly. As physicians, we’re in the best position to spread the word to patients about the benefits of our new telehealth program — more engagement on a regular basis, 24/7 access to clinicians, positive outcomes and so forth. But we can only talk about what we understand. Physician groups that invest in training individual doctors in the pre-launch phase reap the greatest (and fastest) returns. When physicians can see, firsthand, the value of telemedicine, they’re more likely to spread the word, as this case study

A successful telehealth program is more than a high-quality video interface that allows physicians and patients to see each other. It requires a combination of great technology, high-quality health professionals and many other factors in order to provide value. Physicians that understand this are already a step ahead and will stand out as telehealth adoption grows.

Sylvia Romm is a pediatrician and vice-president of medical affairs, American Well.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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