Telehealth game-changers: 6 CIOs share defining factors that transformed virtual care in 2020

From social distancing requirements to expanded insurance coverage, telehealth usage became widespread this year thanks to several components of the healthcare industry's response to COVID-19.

Here, six CIOs from hospitals and health systems across the country share the biggest game-changers for telehealth in 2020.

Question: What has been the biggest game changer for telehealth this year?

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Phyllis Teater, CIO and associate vice president of health services at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center (Columbus): The biggest game changer is now all healthcare providers know telehealth can work to deliver care. Previous to the pandemic, providers and healthcare personnel in general were not convinced this was a viable care medium for many types of visits. With the payment and HIPAA restrictions removed and no other choice in many areas, we discovered that excellent care can be delivered in many more situations via telehealth than we ever dreamed. This helped to convince our industry that telehealth is a viable and long-term solution to access and proximity problems that have long plagued healthcare organizations.

Kevin Yearick, CIO at University of Mississippi Medical Center (Jackson): The combination of the easing of restrictions by the federal government, and the vendor community providing significant pricing discounts to scale their solutions affordably changed the game. Reducing that friction, and the old axiom 'Necessity is the mother of invention' transformed physician adoption rates faster than I've ever seen in healthcare.

Curtis Cole, MD, assistant vice provost of information services and CIO at Weill Cornell Medical College (New York City): A lot of things came together to make telemedicine finally happen at scale in 2020. We had it live already but it wasn't used much beyond a few pioneers. The requirement for social distancing matched with the emergency authorization to finally pay an appropriate amount for telehealth was the big game changer. But it is interesting to wonder what would have happened without the equitable compensation. Recall that postal workers blocked a lot of automation in sorting facilities until the anthrax scare made their opposition more personally dangerous. Similarly, both patients and physicians have benefited from the safety of telemedicine. As such, I suspect we would have had to do it anyway to deal with the pandemic and just gone bankrupt a little faster in the process. Only after COVID-19 is gone and social distancing is not so important will we see what really changed. That's when I think compensation will once again be the driver. Our tolerance of clunky technology will once again fall and in-person visits might also change to enhance the differentiating value they still provide.

Brian Sterud, vice president and CIO at Faith Regional Health Services (Norfolk, Neb.): This is an easy one to answer. Simply put, the game changer was the waivers that were granted to allow more flexibility. Here's hoping that we can see some of these given consideration for longer-term changes.

James Wellman, CIO at Blanchard Valley Health System (Findlay, Ohio): The open response from healthcare providers and those we serve to make telehealth a viable solution in such short order was a game changer. This made telehealth a valuable toolset that we can use for years to come as we continue to enhance the service and extend care to those in need and those with busy schedules who otherwise may have skipped appointments. This truly has allowed us to make a difference in our community, and beyond.

For our health system, it was our ability to quickly transition and make telehealth a viable option for our community in a matter of days. Our providers were all very accepting of the options and were active contributors in making it as effective as possible and the environment of continuous improvement continues. CMS was obviously watching all of this unfold and heard from providers and end users alike that telehealth is a viable option that we should be able to use now and in the future.

Daniel Nash, CIO at Emanate Health (Covina, Calif.): I believe the biggest game changer for telehealth is how the providers themselves view and have accepted the use of telehealth technology in the service of their patients. This has not only been an opportunity for the patient to receive care during the pandemic, but it also has provided a safe haven for those providers who wish to see their patients but at the same time avoid potential exposure. The technological challenges are still there, with bandwidth issues on the part of the patients making a poor experience, as well as the frustration of the providers when the technology does not work and they have to become endpoint desktop support technicians. Millennials will demand these types of services and quick access to care, and the healthcare industry must meet that demand.


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