A massive shift to telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic left many healthcare organizations scrambling to ramp up — not only to acquire the technology and added connectivity but also to get hundreds of providers and staff trained to handle the deluge.
After all, only 24 percent of U.S. healthcare organizations had an existing virtual-care program as of January 2020, according to Forrester, which predicts more than 1 billion telehealth visits will take place this year.
Preparation is critical to ensure proper care is delivered and to provide a safe and seamless experience that’s comparable to an in-person visit. Doing so can convince patients to adapt to and trust the service, both now and in the future.
But there are many factors that must first be addressed. In addition to learning the basics of collaboration software and cybersecurity best practices, here are a few things to consider:
1. Understand and Meet the Evolving Expectations of Patients
In the early days of COVID-19, most patients forgave less-than-perfect aesthetics in order to get expedited care. Now, users want high-quality audio, video and personal connections that mirror a typical face-to-face appointment. This means having proper equipment and robust Wi-Fi, and avoiding common videoconferencing mistakes.
When possible, survey patients to identify common pain points and opportunities; Cleveland Clinic, for instance, relies on hundreds of volunteers to test and critique its virtual-care platform. Also, teach providers about the value of good “webside manner”; the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) has several webinars on the topic.
2. Educate All Staff Members, Regardless of Their Role
There’s a lot more to virtual care than logging in to a videoconferencing platform. Providers must be thoroughly educated about the workflows and capacities of your chosen platform. At Jefferson Health, online video training modules were rolled out via Microsoft SharePoint to educate hundreds of staffers within three days.
To be effective, these efforts can’t be rote or impersonal. “You need connection, and you need to communicate,” Dr. Aditi Joshi, medical director for JeffConnect — the Philadelphia-based organization’s telehealth program — recently told HealthTech. “You need the staffing and the process.”
3. Offer Easy Access to IT Support Throughout the Care Journey
More than half of providers now view telehealth more favorably than before COVID-19, an April survey by McKinsey found, but the technology isn’t perfect. This is why having a designated help desk, IT staffer or managed services partnership to step in when an unexpected hiccup arises is crucial. Clearly explain how to contact these individuals.
This mindset is also valid for recipients, especially before a patient’s first virtual appointment — regardless of their age or comfort with technology. Consider having administrative teams deliver personalized outreach by phone. At Banner Health, hospitalized patients are taught the basics of telehealth so care can continue at home.
READ MORE: Prepare your clinical staff for virtual care delivery.
4. Educate Providers (and Patients) on Security Best Practices
In March, federal officials temporarily waived potential HIPAA violations for “good faith use of telehealth” to quickly deliver virtual care in a crisis. But they also warned that third-party applications potentially introduce privacy risks, and that providers should enable all available encryption and privacy modes when using such applications.
Communicate the presence of these risks as well as best practices for safe remote work and use of mobile communications devices. Likewise, be sure to educate patients about your protective measures and how they too can play a role. This is still new territory for many; easing any fears about breaches and confidentiality can go a long way.
5. Expand Your Perceptions of What Virtual Care Can Be
As hospitals work to expand prior offerings that were stopped or delayed amid the pandemic, there’s no question it will take time to resume business as usual. Healthcare leaders must work together to determine which medical specialties may adopt or expand virtual offerings to tackle a backlog of patients and deliver timely care.
The possibilities are many, as Ann Mond Johnson, CEO of the ATA, told HealthTech. She’s a “big proponent” of online physical therapy and used it herself after a shoulder fracture. Other areas of opportunity, she notes, include virtual sessions for orthopedics, ocular care and behavioral health — with the latter poised to fill a major void.
This article is part of HealthTech’s MonITor blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using #WellnessIT.