Digital health and telehealth veteran, Christian Milaster, shares more on this topic.
Quick! Let’s play a word association game: What are the first five words that come to mind when you hear the word “telehealth”? How about video, distance, network, telephone, camera? What images come to mind? That notorious stethoscope neatly draped around a computer monitor? Blinking lights and electrodes attached to a bedridden patient?
Yet, telehealth — delivering care at a distance — is more a people vs. technology play. Because when telehealth is just about the technology it fails….every time. Telehealth is about engaging with patients at a distance. It’s not about the cameras, the carts, the robots, or any gadgetry that allows the continuous monitoring of any vital sign or movement.
What Matters & In What Order
First and foremost, Telehealth is about people – the patients, the caregivers, the providers, the care team, the schedulers, the coders. If people don’t like it, they won’t use it. If people don’t understand why, they should use it, they won’t use it as effectively.
To make sure that telehealth is about the people, telehealth is about processes to deliver telehealth effectively and efficiently. “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” is a quote often attributed to Don Berwick, the founder of the Institute of Healthcare Improvement, which I use as a marching order on every project.
Purposefully designed telehealth processes ensure that people can use the technology to achieve the results they want: easier, more frequent access; more efficient and cost-effective care; and ultimately better outcomes. This includes the processes for scheduling virtual appointments, effectively handling ad hoc visits, having defined contingency plans to deal with life’s and technology’s inevitable mishaps. The processes define the tools and means to coordinate and synchronize workflows at the patient’s and the provider’s location, plus all the administrative processes (e.g., billing), and the operational and technical support processes (e.g., training and help desk).
When concerned about not receiving care at the standard of quality and efficiency expected, consumers become reluctant to use telehealth. More than 41% of participants in a study by Sykes Enterprise reported that “not being convinced the platform would properly diagnose” as a deterrent to using virtual care.
When it comes to a successful telehealth program, technology comes in dead last. Now, granted, that hasn’t always been the case. Getting the technology right, the networks correctly configured, getting different video standards to talk to each other or ensuring a great picture and great sound hasn’t always been a relatively trivial task. “Back in the days”, a lot of thought had to be given to ensure that the technology did not stand in the way and that it was as user friendly as possible.
Today, most of the technology for telehealth is off-the-shelf or available from reputable telehealth vendors that have been around long enough to have worked through the kinks. Therefore, technology takes a back seat when it comes to the implementation of successful telehealth services.
Organizations with Successful Telehealth Programs
Organizations that are successful with telehealth have also made telehealth an integral part of their overall strategic plan. These clinics, urgent care centers, and integrated health systems have developed a clear long-term vision how telehealth in all of its facets will help them to provide the best care to their patients.
These organizations also leverage telehealth as an opportunity to redesign key healthcare delivery processes such as scheduling and pre-appointment communication. The introduction of telehealth provides an opportunity to map current workflows and to identify inefficiencies that can be removed by a redesign of the process. Those that utilize telehealth as an avenue for exploring new methods and processes for service delivery, clearly have a leg-up on their competition.
The most successful healthcare organizations have also realized that telehealth is a strategic effort driven by the clinical practice and not an IT initiative or the heroic effort of just one specialty. For those organizations telehealth is not an “IT job”. It’s a job for the CMO, the CMIO, the COO and the CFO.
Telehealth is not about the technology.
It is about purposefully designed processes that enable care teams to provide excellent care at a distance that delights patients and staff alike.
When will you design your telehealth system to get the results you want to get?