Mar 06 2023
Patient-Centered Care

ATA2023: The ‘Job Is Not Done’ with Making Telehealth an Integral Part of Care Delivery

The American Telemedicine Association celebrated its 30th anniversary at this year’s conference and expo in San Antonio.

As technology and medical processes advanced in the 1990s, modern telemedicine entered a new era, and with that, the American Telemedicine Association emerged as a leading voice championing widespread telehealth adoption.

The organization marked its 30th anniversary at the ATA2023 Annual Conference and Expo from March 4-6 in San Antonio. This year’s theme — “From Now What? to How To! The Vision and Realities of Telehealth Adoption” — focused on the next era of telemedicine, moving from point solutions to full system integration.

Federal scrutiny and uncertain policy direction remain major challenges to a seamless hybrid or virtual-first care delivery process. Just last month, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced a proposal for tighter limits on the prescription of controlled medications through telemedicine after the public health emergency expires in May. ATA has spoken out against the proposal, especially as it relates to patient care and access.

“I think it’s important for us to remember that this is a really critical juncture,” said ATA CEO Ann Mond Johnson from the main stage on day one of the conference. “We had great victories at the end of the year, but now we’re dealing with some real challenges as it relates to the proposed rules from the DEA. Our job is not done.”

So, how can providers act now to better integrate telehealth processes for a frictionless healthcare experience? Industry experts shared their insights in a keynote address and informative panel discussions.

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ATA Surveys the Current Telehealth Landscape and What’s Next

ATA Board Chair Kristi Henderson, who is also CEO of MedExpress and senior vice president of the Optum Center for Digital Health, delivered the first keynote address of the conference.

Henderson said the stories she shared during a TEDx talk in 2014 — from connecting a patient to a specialist for necessary chronic disease management to supporting a rural hospital — are still relevant today, yet it’s frustrating that in 2023 the conversation feels stagnant.

“Why is that we have digital health tools and we can make things simpler, but we’re going backward?” she asked.

With too many U.S. patients still putting off care and waiting too long to meet a primary care physician or a specialist, Henderson said telehealth needs to move beyond single solutions and become a fully integrated system.

American Telemedicine Association CEO Ann Mond Johnson (left) and ATA Board Chair Kristi Henderson deliver opening remarks on the first day of the 2023 conference.

“We’ve really dressed it up, because we have some great point solutions here and there, but we haven’t done the next level of work to make omnichannel come to life. We’ve got to dig in there and change the operating model,” she said.

“It’s now no longer about, ‘Let’s try to create the technology and implement it.’ It’s now about integrating it and making our operating model work right. It’s about changing policies, allotting incentives. This next level is really going to be a lot harder.”

Henderson emphasized the importance of a seamless and frictionless telehealth experience for clinical teams and patients, and that a hybrid model should optimize both physical and digital encounters: “If we don’t work on this operating model and the workflows, I really think we’re going to continue to gravitate back to the physical world.”

For example, are there clear guidelines for the front office to suggest a virtual visit first to a patient? Are there integrations for scheduling and patient intake documents? How can providers make sure processes flow together?

ATA Board Chair Kristi Henderson delivers a keynote address on the next level of virtual care integration on March 4 in San Antonio.

“Omnichannel is not about forcing people to do digital; it’s about building trust and getting people options based on their needs and desires,” Henderson said. “But just think about, maybe one day, we could have that logic built in, with care started as an asynchronous digital encounter with input coming from remote devices.”

If a need isn’t resolved during that time, then the next step would be a synchronous virtual visit with digital tools, and should further escalation be needed, that patient would receive in-person care at a clinic or their workplace.

“We need to be able to show that a digitally enabled system of care has better outcomes, engagement, experience and lower cost when compared with a care delivery organization that doesn’t optimize the tools,” she said. “If we don’t demonstrate the real value, we’re going to falsely judge technology and products as the reason it failed, when in fact it may be that it wasn’t implemented and integrated in the right way.”

EXPLORE: How virtual reality helps healthcare students experience clinical scenarios.

Microsoft and Google Reflect on Healthcare’s Transformation

A panel discussion that followed with leaders from Microsoft and Google began with, of course, ChatGPT and the role of artificial intelligence in healthcare.

Both Kim Swafford, a health industry executive at Microsoft, and Bakul Patel, senior director of global digital health strategy and regulatory at Google, insisted that AI tools need to be paired with human practitioners. Swafford said that AI-enabled technology and a person trained in AI work better together. Patel called AI an “augmenting technology as opposed to a replacing technology.”

As a start, ChatGPT has the potential to improve telehealth delivery by helping with triage, improving patient digital access and aiding clinicians with administrative tasks, Swafford said.