– Healthcare providers have, for the most part, enjoyed success in adopting – and adapting to – telehealth during the coronavirus pandemic. And many are planning for a post-pandemic future that mixes virtual visits with in-person care.
But just because a practice might be Zooming with patients or diagnosing over the phone now doesn’t mean they’ll be able to do the same thing once the public health emergency ends. Many federal and state regulations regarding telehealth access and coverage have been relaxed to help providers adjust to COVID-19, and some – if not all – of those freedoms will end with the PHE.
Medical practices need to think now about adjusting their workflows for a post-pandemic landscape, so that both providers and patients understand and benefit from telehealth.
With help from Relatient, a Tennessee-based developer of patient engagement services, here are five steps that medical practices should take to establish an effective post-pandemic hybrid healthcare service.
LET YOUR PATIENTS KNOW THEIR OPTIONS
According to a recent Accenture Health report, some 64 percent of patients said they would change providers if their current provider isn’t ensuring safety, they can’t access their health data or they can’t see their doctor via telehealth. And those numbers will grow as telehealth becomes a more integrated part of the standard care management process.
The future lies in a hybrid care approach, mixing in-person visits for services that can’t be done online and for patients who want to see their doctor in person with connected health channels that allow for virtual care when available and convenient. But that platform will only work if patients know what they can’t and can’t access.
“Patients can’t weigh their options if they don’t know about them,” the Relatient team notes. “While your website is a good place to start, patients won’t naturally gravitate to your website.”
Alongside that website, providers should send push notifications (also known as demand or broadcast messaging) to patients letting them know how and where they can access care, and use social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, even YouTube) to get the word out. The more touch points, the more opportunities to educate both existing and potential patients.
As always, make sure that all channels are secure, and that any information exchanged with patients is HIPAA compliant.
ENABLE A CHAT/SECURE MESSAGING FEATURE
While the first step focuses on contact, the logical next step is communication. The tried-and-true method for getting more information and having questions answered is the telephone, but that can strain office resources and get in the way of more important communications. In addition, there are more convenient channels for communication.
A chat or secure messaging platform allows patients and curious consumers to communicate on their own time and at their own pace, and gives office staff the leeway to find the right answers and add to the conversation without tying up phone lines. These messages can also link to other resources, giving the patient/consumer information on whether to select in-person or virtual care, what services meet the patient’s needs, and how schedule an appointment.
Again, it’s important to remember that these channels need to be safe and secure. This includes letting patients/consumers know exactly what they can and can’t do, and what information can and can’t be shared, online.
ADJUST APPOINTMENT REMINDER SCRIPTS
Prior to COVID-19, the popular method for making an appointment to see a care provider was to call the office or clinic and schedule something over the phone.
Connected health tools have changed that dynamic, and medical practices now have the opportunity to create a seamless online platform that can eliminate most of the phone calls and the waiting – in some cases eliminating the waiting room altogether. And as the nation shifts to hybrid healthcare, it’s vital that practices integrate these tools with the back end, so that office staff and providers can benefit as much as the patients.
An online scheduling platform should be easy to access and understand – including for patients who aren’t especially literate in either English or digital health. Visitors should be able to not only choose between virtual and in-person appointments, but select the provider and care they need. They should be given clear instructions on how to prepare for virtual and in-person appointments, what to bring, when to arrive and what to expect. An easy and complete registration process improves the likelihood that a patient/consumer will arrive for the appointment on time and selects that practice for future care needs.
On the back end, the platform should integrate with the electronic health record to ensure that the provider has all the information available on the patient prior to the appointment; this also ensures that all notes and relevant data from the session, whether in person or virtual, is entered into the medical record for future care opportunities.
Practices should also send out appointment reminders, and to include a link to the online platform if the session is virtual.
MOVE REGISTRATION ONLINE AND TO PATIENT DEVICES
Patient registration offers the opportunity to capture a wide range of information – and to schedule and adjust care management as needed. It allows providers to update and fill out the medical record, set up the billing process and identify opportunities to push resources to the patient, ranging from pharmacy and specialist consults to health and wellness information.
With the advent of online care, medical practices can now collect all this information online, well before the patient/consumer visits the telehealth portal or office. Billing, insurance, health and wellness tips and information on other services can be organized in advance of the care visit, freeing provider and patient to focus solely on the reason for the visit.
As mentioned before, this also reduces the wait time, maybe even the waiting room altogether. It eliminates the need to have the patient fill out forms and update records upon arriving at the office or logging on to the portal. It also gives the provider all the information he or she needs before seeing the patient.
And as always, the registration process should be easy for patients to use, with as few clicks as possible and very clear instructions. This not only improves patient engagement but ensures that the practice is getting all the information it should be getting, and not missing out on any important health data or opportunities to improve patient care.
ADOPT A HYBRID CARE MENTALITY
Finally, the medical practice needs to make sure that hybrid care is a natural part of the process, not something added on or sitting outside the normal routine. Providers who incorporate telehealth into their workloads without a lot of fuss will make their patients – current and new – more comfortable with selecting that option. Those who make a big deal out of it run the risk of alienating or scaring away patients who just want an easy and convenient way to access care.
With surveys indicating both patients and providers have adjusted well to using telehealth during the pandemic, the signs are pretty clear that hybrid platforms that combine in-person and virtual care will be the norm once the public health emergency has passed. And while federal and state lawmakers are still trying to hash out how telehealth will be regulated and reimbursed, it’s up to providers to lay the groundwork now for hybrid care, rather than waiting.