Jul 21 2023
Patient-Centered Care

Frictionless Telehealth and Integrated Care Critical to Healthcare Access

A UPMC telehealth leader explains why it’s not the end of the road for innovation, even as the public health emergency ends.

For the past three years, patients across the country have become familiar with seeing their doctor on a digital screen from the comfort of their own homes. Clinicians, too, have grown to depend on virtual visits as a way to provide consistent, high-quality care and expand access to care.

Telehealth is not a new mode of care delivery, but until recently providers had only pockets of successful implementation, such as hospital patient consultations, telestroke and virtual urgent care visits. Then, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped health systems’ needs and widespread adoption took off, helped by changing reimbursement policies and technological improvements.

Though the COVID-19 public health emergency ended in May, many telehealth policies that were enacted during the height of the pandemic have been extended as physicians and patients spoke out when those protections were threatened.  

The next steps for telehealth will be critical for it to be truly integrated into care delivery. We know that this is a care model physicians and patients want; now we must make sure there are frictionless transitions from virtual to in-person care.

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Changing Attitudes Toward Telehealth and Creating Continuous Care

While telehealth will not replace all traditional healthcare, acceptance has been key to increasing demand from patients.

Clinicians’ attitudes toward telehealth have become more positive since the pandemic as they have gained experience through the improved adoption of technology and have seen the benefits of better patient care. Patients also have a more positive view and expect providers to offer telehealth and self-service options for care, such as using virtual visits for nonurgent care questions.

As a leader in telehealth with dozens of programs, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in central Pennsylvania is constantly innovating. The pandemic created an immediate opportunity to rethink telehealth implementations beyond the walls of traditional brick-and-mortar settings.

The most common misconception is that launching such programs can take a lot of time and resources. With our longtime experience, we have initiated and operationalized programs in as little as two weeks. We have purposefully thought out how to embed the telehealth workflows within clinical workflows, resulting in seamless integration. This has eased adoption and supported the change that is required for the expansion of new programs.

UPMC is a large, integrated provider and insurer with multiple state, national and global locations that cover a widespread patient population. We’ve launched a virtual-first, full-service primary care clinic for patients ages 18 and up that supports a holistic approach to care. Virtual primary care has also been a great tool for attracting and retaining physicians and staff.

For UPMC, the journey to make high-quality care accessible to patients continues, from telehealth in palliative care and tele-emergency departments that support rural health to plans for more integration with artificial intelligence-powered tools.

RELATED: How the Clinic by Cleveland Clinic is using telehealth to improve healthcare access.

Lessons Learned from Telehealth Rollouts

Telehealth supports health equity by improving access to healthcare and assisting in reducing costs through earlier intervention or better management of chronic conditions. Much more is needed in designing telehealth to solve digital equity gaps by reducing racial or other biases, such as improving technology barriers, increasing broadband access and enhancing care methods for marginalized communities.

For the continued success of telehealth, federal policies need to be updated and adjusted, including policies on reimbursement, cross-state medical licensing and access to broadband infrastructure within our rural communities. Policymakers can ensure that patients have access to the care they need, regardless of where they live or their ability to travel to a health system.

I am convinced that telehealth will see continued growth this year in expanding access to healthcare. Industry proponents in technology, retail and insurance will continue to promote telehealth to grow their presence within the healthcare market.

Telehealth will continue to evolve to include more visit types within ambulatory care. In five years, I expect AI and digital therapeutics to be fully integrated for both the provider and the patient, enabling telehealth to advance to the next level. AI models such as ChatGPT and ambient voice are primed for deployment in the telehealth space as patients and clinicians interact in the virtual environment.

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