Jun 08 2020

#ATA2020: CEO Ann Mond Johnson Touches on the Newly Virtual Event

Moving the annual conference online isn’t just about safety. For this group, it’s symbolic.

For years, an annual conference promoting the value of virtual care brought thousands of clinicians, IT managers and vendors under one roof for old-fashioned face time.

No longer: Like scores of other events pivoting amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Telemedicine Association will take its gathering online from June 22-26. 

These attendees may find the shift less jarring, says Ann Mond Johnson, the organization’s CEO.

“Who better than the ATA to do a virtual event?” Johnson tells HealthTech. “It’s very consistent with our vision. I think it’s going to be as jampacked with speakers and sessions as the physical event would be. We have to use technology to reimagine these types of events, because I don’t think they’re going to be isolated in the future.”

That thinking reflects ongoing deployment and acceptance of telehealth, which has quickly become critical for public safety and business continuity.

Consumers’ virtual care adoption increased more than 400 percent over 2019, according to an April survey conducted by McKinsey, with 74 percent of users reporting a positive experience. Among providers, more than half view telehealth more favorably than before COVID-19; two-thirds are more comfortable using it. 

“We’re seeing data that shows unbelievable surges in adoption and use,” Johnson says. “You see the myths associated with telehealth getting blown up left and right.”

She spoke more about the upcoming conference and the future of virtual care:

HEALTHTECH: What will the conference look like without a physical space?

JOHNSON: One thing that was very important to us when we made a decision to pivot to virtual was to work with our key members, sponsors and exhibitors. We wanted to really make this a collaborative effort, so we got a lot of input from the exhibitors in terms of what was going to be meaningful and useful for them. 

People will be able to sign up to interact with exhibitors to learn more about what they're doing. It’s intended to be very personalized, but also to really leverage the technology. Obviously, we’re not going to do it from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day; there’s a live element and recorded elements — high production value and high content value. 

HEALTHTECH: How much did your presenters have to shift course?

JOHNSON: What we found was that a lot of the sessions are naturally taking a COVID or pandemic approach. I think what we will see nationally is an examination of what worked and what didn’t work with this public health emergency, and how we can adapt differently going forward. Because there will be another one; we know that, right? 

We have some others that, quite frankly, are timely because of the topics they tackle. We have a panel on the user experience and the fact that often we haven’t delivered very well as an industry for special needs populations, and we have to up our game there. That’s going to be a very powerful session.

HEALTHTECH: Can you reflect on the significance of this moment for telehealth?

JOHNSON: The surge that has occurred is unbelievable, and it put enormous pressure on traditional providers and delivery systems to respond. You have organizations like Providence St. Joseph Health that brought on literally thousands of physicians overnight, and then you have independently run physician practices that were able to convert over a weekend. 

We think of telehealth as a pretty broad matrix of activities. One thing I always point out — something not as widely acknowledged previously — is the role of asynchronous services that allowed patients to go online and determine whether the symptoms they thought they had were indicative of having the coronavirus.

Ann Mond Johnson, CEO, American Telemedicine Association
We have to use technology to reimagine these types of events, because I don’t think they’re going to be isolated in the future.”

Ann Mond Johnson CEO, American Telemedicine Association

It's not that they would never talk to a provider, it just allowed the system to triage them and for them to triage themselves. That has been really powerful: Think about the hundreds of thousands of Americans who were scared, who were alone, who didn’t know what to do.

Likewise, synchronous communication that lets people talk to one another is very, very important. And then there’s remote monitoring tools: Some first responders, for example, were monitored continuously so they could be taken off active duty and taken care of if they developed symptoms.

HEALTHTECH: How has the consumer mindset toward telehealth changed?

JOHNSON: When I joined the ATA, adoption and engagement were pretty low. We realized there were myths standing in the way. One was that telehealth somehow wasn’t as effective, or that it’s second-class medicine. What our members have found in interacting with patients and providers is that everybody’s been pleasantly surprised. 

Getting people to use telehealth once has really helped them understand this is more than a convenience tool. This is a tool that can make a difference between you getting sick or not getting sick, between you exposing people or not exposing them — really, in many instances, a life-and-death matter. 

READ MORE: Six reasons why telehealth is now more important than ever.

HEALTHTECH: But these platforms aren’t just for COVID-19 care, right?

JOHNSON: Exactly. Prepandemic, we didn’t have enough clinicians to take care of people. Now that we are in the midst of this and have been able to tweak the system, we’re seeing much greater adoption and utilization of telehealth. 

Orthopedists, for example, have the ability to manage the pain of patients who have had to delay elective surgery. Physical therapy — I am a big proponent of that, having gone through that after I fractured my shoulder a few years ago. I did everything virtually with my rehab, so that was cool. Ocular care — we know that it’s more effective via telehealth to deliver virtual services for diabetic retinopathy patients. 

Of course, the real poster child of all this is behavioral health, and the ATA has a special interest group in this domain that came out with practice guidelines in 2018 that were endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association. The bottom line: Virtual is as good as face-to-face when it comes to telebehavioral health or telemental health services.

HEALTHTECH: How important are training and infrastructure to telehealth?

JOHNSON: We’ve done a couple of webinars on that, all of which are available for download. We also provided a quick-start guide for physicians. 

In the absence of formal training, there are some commonsense things: Let your patient know this is going to be a telehealth visit, get their permission and make sure you have no background distractions. It’s just as professional as someone would be face-to-face. Also, broadband and connectivity are absolutely essential. 

But by the same token, what we’re asking is how does telehealth support Medicaid populations? Prepandemic, about 4 percent of Medicaid populations were using telehealth. Ninety-five percent of Medicaid populations have or use smartphones, so it's really a question of making it easier for them to continue to access these services.

We’re also concerned about disparities in terms of access. Addressing broadband, smartphones and Wi-Fi-enabled devices is really important so we can continue to promote the notion that people should get care where and when they need it

HEALTHTECH: What challenges and opportunities do you see ahead?

JOHNSON: I think those things are one and the same. The ATA is mounting a campaign to ensure the gains we’ve made from a regulatory and legislative perspective become permanent, and we’re doing this on two fronts. One is on the policy and advocacy side; the other is thought leadership. That comes from stories, from data, from research.

One of the most critical things from our perspective — and the ATA put out a statement on this — is to make sure the tools, resources and platforms have security and confidentiality very much ingrained, whether you do it on your own or in the context of a delivery system or a larger group practice. Even though there was discretionary enforcement as it relates to HIPAA, we’re deeply concerned about patient privacy.

There’s a lot to be dealt with at both the state and federal levels. Fortunately, as an association, we have an incredibly diverse membership. As much work as there is to do, it's easy to do it when all your members are working their hearts out as well.

Keep this page bookmarked for articles from the event. Follow us on Twitter @HealthTechMag as well as the official organization account, @AmericanTelemed, and join the conversation using the hashtags #ATA2020 and #GoTelehealth.

Photography by Jonathan Timmes