The past 18 months have been challenging for businesses across a wide array of industries. Healthcare providers have been faced with a challenge across several fronts. Not only are many employees serving on the front line in our collective battle against COVID-19, but they have continued to risk personal health and safety to serve their patients. If there has been one silver lining, it’s been the prioritized emergence of telehealth.
Many of us didn’t want to leave our homes because of safety concerns or the need to quarantine after a potential exposure. In some states, stay-at-home mandates forced some healthcare providers to temporarily close their doors. The need to adapt and switch to virtual telehealth care became the next best option to continue serving the needs of patients.
What Is Telehealth?
Telehealth is healthcare provided to a patient via electronic means that uses two-way voice and/or visual communication.
During state-issued lockdowns early in the COVID-19 pandemic, some non-emergency healthcare practices were closed. While many healthcare professionals were called to hospitals and temporary sites to help overwhelmed staff, those who weren’t called stayed at home and began providing virtual care.
While telehealth solutions have been around for years prior to the pandemic, the adoption of technology has greatly accelerated over the past 18 months. Today, many providers are now offering a hybrid model of care. Patients who are comfortable and don’t poste a potential exposure risk can visit the facility. For those who have difficulty traveling, or do not feel safe, an initial prescreen appointment can be conducted over a secure, HIPAA-compliant telehealth video solution.
The Benefits of Telehealth
Customized healthcare has become more widespread, but virtual care continues to expand it.
Location Does Not Matter for Telehealth
Patients now have the option to match with physicians based on selected preferences even if those providers aren’t located geographically to the patient. This opens the possibility to find a provider based on criteria such as ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender, which may be important for some patients.
This is especially impactful in rural areas, where options are usually limited. Travel time also isn’t a factor anymore, and patients can receive care from doctors miles away.
The Low Cost of Telehealth
Compared to providing in-person care, there is significantly lower cost in providing telehealth. While there may be some initial upfront costs in equipment and a monthly fee to maintain a HIPAA-compliant secure connection, the cost to see patients drops significantly. Combine this with the fact that you can often see far more patients with less time wasted in setting up patients in waiting rooms or dealing with no-shows, the latter becoming less of an issue as it can be as easy as the click of a button on a mobile device for the patient to begin talking to their doctor. With telehealth appointments billed at a similar rate, it can mean improved margins for the practice.
Easier Access to Medicine
Patients can often be prescribed medication (or renew existing prescriptions) without the need to visit in-person. The increased availability of telehealth appointments reduces the risk of missing a dosage due to a prescription expiring.
The Cons of Telehealth
Despite all its benefits, telehealth does have some downfalls that healthcare providers and patients should be aware of.
Technical Limitations of Telehealth
Not all of us have access to the proper technology, which would limit us to in-person visits only. This may be especially true for older segments of the population or those located in areas of the country without access to broadband internet, which makes video connections difficult if not impossible.
Telehealth Treatment Options
While some form of diagnosis or post-visit checkup can be done easily over telehealth, actual treatments rarely can. Even when treatments are prescribed, a video connection doesn’t replace a hands-on approach and the human-to-human connection that occurs in-person. Plus, there’s the reality that treatment can often only be performed in-person with specialists and/or specialized equipment, such as a cast of post-injury rehabilitation.
The Security of Telehealth Solutions
It’s been mentioned a couple times before, but we can’t stress enough the importance of ensuring the telehealth solution you offer to patients is secure and HIPAA-compliant. Many of the video conference solutions that we all became reliant on over the past 18 months don’t offer any HIPAA security protocols, or if they do, are often an add-on subscription or license option. The last thing you want to do is introduce unnecessary exposure risk to your patient or practice by using a less-than-secure telehealth solution to discuss personal health information (PHI).
Both physicians and patients still have a lot to learn in this evolving space, but as the technology and access to it improves, the day may come where telehealth is the norm and in-person patient visits are reserved for select cases. The pandemic accelerated the telehealth process, but it’s for the better. It provides more options and increased flexibility. The potential and growth of telehealth is limitless for every aspect of healthcare.
Written by: Megan Loomans