Telehealth had been redefining healthcare for years before COVID-19 sped up the adoption of this convenient, efficient, and effective delivery model. Providers and patients alike who still have reservations about using telehealth may not be informed about its vast workflow and outcome benefits.
Top telehealth benefits and challenges
Telehealth is the use of telecommunication technology—computers and mobile devices—to support virtual care, health education for patients, healthcare administration, and public health initiatives. Sudden, rapid adoption has illuminated telehealth benefits and challenges for healthcare professionals in every specialty.
Benefits for providers
Though patients’ benefits may seem more obvious, medical providers have also been enjoying the following advantages of telehealth for years:
1. Improved access to care
Call centers and nurse advice lines have brought the most immediate telehealth benefits and challenges into the spotlight, and in 2020, benefits have by far outweighed challenges.
The ability to treat minor COVID symptoms while the patient is comfortable and safe at home is critical. Throughout the pandemic, many patients have been wary of facilities and avoid provider waiting rooms, so distanced diagnosis and prescription are a welcome relief.
For years before the pandemic, healthcare providers have struggled to provide adequate care for patients who:
- Need to be triaged
- Need to be treated by specialists at distant locations
- Live in rural areas
- Cannot travel to your facility
Once clinicians saw those advantages, concerns about telehealth waned.
2. Higher patient engagement rates
Since consumers can get their shoes and dinner delivered with a tap, they expect the same from their healthcare providers. Online reviews, appointment booking, and digital reminders help patients engage in their care, relieving providers of mundane tasks that pull them away from patient care.
The most obvious advantage of virtual care? It reduces the risk of exposure as well as the anxiety around office visits. It also reduces wait times so providers can treat and engage more patients every day.
3. Better patient outcomes
One of the most exciting benefits of telehealth for providers is a significant improvement in outcomes. Chronic condition care presents the perfect pairing for telehealth. Challenges around monitoring diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, as well as musculoskeletal and behavioral health have been met with remote patient monitoring technology.
But one of the most profound benefits of virtual care is its ability to protect patients who are at a higher risk for COVID complications. The logistical telehealth challenges some providers still cite seem less pressing when compared to the way it limits exposure to the virus.
4. Lower hospital readmission and no-show rates
Instead of making costly, unnecessary trips to an immediate care clinic or emergency room, patients with acute health issues can now get immediate care—without risking exposure to the virus.
Since post-discharge and follow-up care can be done virtually, patients take and implement instructions and prescriptions at their own pace. The new format also gives them more opportunities to raise questions or concerns using devices they’re comfortable with (this service presents telehealth benefits and challenges for patients who are technology-averse).
The patients who typically miss clinic appointments due to transportation issues, mobility challenges, or disabilities can now attend appointments from any accessible location or device. They, too, are more likely to follow through with instructions and prescriptions on their own terms. This level of engagement keeps patients healthier and more vigilant, and more likely to seek intervention before their conditions reach critical stages.
Cost-cutting is one of the most well-researched advantages of telehealth. When you adopt telehealth at your hospital or clinic, you’ll lower your overhead and distribute resources more efficiently. You’ll also make your service hours more flexible, increasing motivation and productivity for clinicians while reducing stress for patients and clinicians.
According to a Health Finance News review of telehealth benefits and challenges, research has confirmed that health-tech platforms enable quicker and more efficient care in lower-cost settings. It helps providers cut costs by reducing the time and distance required for treatment. When patients don’t skip visits, they’re less likely to wait until they’ve developed critical issues, which are much more costly to treat.
One of the less obvious telehealth benefits is the reduction of overused procedures like imaging. According to Diagnostic Imaging, electronic consultation between radiologists and referring physicians can reduce the need for unnecessary imaging exams.
Some practices in the Health Finance News report saved as much as half the cost of a traditional office visit. HIPAA-compliant telehealth platforms that integrate your EMR systems will also help you cut costs by streamlining workflows and sharing information between providers at your facility as well as those at specialty clinics.
Benefits for patients
Patients may perceive telehealth benefits and challenges differently than a clinician does, but they fully enjoy the following benefits.
1. Improved outcomes
Research conducted by The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that telehealth clinical outcomes are as good or better than traditional on-site care outcomes. Chronic conditions like congestive heart failure, COPD, and diabetes yielded the most impactful telehealth benefits for patients since remote monitoring kept them abreast of warning signals.
2. Immediacy and accessibility
Mental healthcare also showed improvement when behavioral therapy and psychotherapy were administered on the patient’s terms. One of the benefits of virtual care is that its immediacy, accessibility, and monitoring consistency help prevent risky behavior, improving patients’ perception of provider support and inspiring trust.
3. Fewer complications
The agency also found that 21 studies reported significantly lower mortality rates when using remote ICUs—some even reported lower complications when implementing remote ICUs.
Provider telehealth challenges
Despite the many benefits of leveraging telehealth, this next-generation technology poses some challenges as it gets integrated into the healthcare and insurance industries.
One of the biggest challenges with telemedicine has been that Medicaid and Medicare did not reimburse for it at the same level as traditional on-site visits. During the pandemic, however, providers have enjoyed expanded reimbursement from the Center of Medicaid and Medicare Services. The future of this temporary change is uncertain.
Cumbersome restrictions and regulations are some of the most significant telehealth challenges. Despite the many telehealth benefits, providers were reluctant to offer it. As of March 1, 2020, however, The American Medical Association reported that during the COVID 19 public health emergency, Medicare would pay healthcare providers the same rate for telehealth services as it did for on-site visits—and that applies to all services, not just COVID-19 care. For now, providers can reduce or waive cost-sharing for telehealth visits, e-visits, virtual check-ins, and remote patient monitoring.
The biggest telehealth challenges for healthcare providers are related to scalability. If healthcare organizations lack next-generation infrastructure, implementing, addressing, and scaling telehealth benefits becomes extremely difficult. Platforms like Welkin are designed to help various types and sizes of healthcare organizations scale efficiently and implement telehealth effectively—making healthcare less stressful and more enjoyable for patients and providers.
Patient telehealth challenges
As with so many digital technologies, telehealth raises concerns about privacy and patient data security. Addressing these telehealth challenges requires patients to be vigilant and educate themselves about the security measures offered.
1. Security measures
Early in the pandemic, it became clear that Zoom, for example, was not robust enough to abide by HIPAA security standards. While Zoom made some security updates, patients need their providers to use encrypted, password-protected platforms. Reaping the benefits of virtual care requires paying a lot of attention on the front end and providing consistent maintenance of security measures.
Just like clinicians, patients need education and training on data-privacy measures when they access their wifi network to have a telehealth visit. They should make sure that their information is accessible to the minimal number of clinicians required to treat their condition.
Telehealth challenges that patients often grapple with are a lack of awareness or understanding. If they don’t know the option exists, they may never request it. During a pandemic, word of mouth spreads quickly, so it’s likely that as social distancing measures ease up, more types of patients will be requesting it—or at least inquiring about it.
Patients may not have access to the technology required to make effective use of it. Even if they do have access to the necessary technology, they may have trouble using it correctly and lack access to effective training. But once they see it in action and enjoy the experience of interacting with clinicians digitally, most patients never go back.
Once understood and addressed, these telehealth benefits and challenges become quickly embedded in the daily routines of patients and providers. Learning to use this next-generation technology doesn’t have to be difficult—it can even be fun.
In our opinion, the benefits of telehealth far outweigh the small hurdles you may face when adopting telehealth technology. Making healthcare more accessible to the masses is an absolute win in our book.
The first step? Read our telehealth guide and let us know how much more productive and enjoyable your patient interactions become.