The 'secret sauce' to telehealth adoption: 4 pieces of advice from Teladoc marketing chief Stephany Verstraete

Whether its mid-winter cold and flu season or springtime when allergies are in full swing, telehealth allows providers to meet their patients where they are — so long as patients are engaged and aware of the technology.

For telehealth service provider Teladoc, late December through February tends to be the busiest time, and this winter is no exception, according to Stephany Verstraete, Teladoc's chief marketing officer. Not only is the 2017-18 flu season one of the most aggressive in recent years, but when people travel during the holidays, getting in to see a healthcare provider can be tricky. Telehealth offers a solution.

"When it comes to [telehealth], you can imagine that initially, it's a little bit counterintuitive for a patient. They say, 'Well wait a minute, my provider is telling me that I don't have to come in in-person? That I can get this virtual delivery of care?'" says Ms. Verstraete.

Ms. Verstraete isn't a stranger to convincing consumers to go against the grain. Before she joined Teladoc in 2016, she held various leadership roles with high-profile brands including Match.com, Expedia, Kraft, Frito Lay and Hostess. For Ms. Verstraete, marketing telehealth feels a lot like her time at Expedia and Match.com because all three customer experiences are still relatively new to consumers.

"Teladoc is focused on overcoming an ingrained behavior in which the average person gets sick and thinks 'I have to go to a doctor. I have to go to a physical location to get care,'" Ms. Verstraete says. "We're focused on shifting that thinking, so accessing care through virtual delivery is a mainstream behavior."

She adds that Teladoc aims to provide a highly customizable platform tailored to meet the financial and high-quality care needs of hospitals and health systems.

"There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to business needs of the broad health system market...What we've developed is an assessment tool that allows us to go in and immediately partner with health system prospects or clients and say, 'This assessment tool will help us identify and address your unique need,'" she says. "Identifying the right solution; the right application of telehealth at the on-set is really part of our success. It gives health systems the confidence that they are addressing their priorities and getting a telehealth solution that is uniquely configured to meet their goals and business needs."

But raising patient awareness, and getting them to buy into telehealth, is where Ms. Verstraete says many hospitals see a challenge. Here are her four pieces of advice to hospitals and health systems looking to implement telehealth offerings.

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

1. Vendor, vendor, vendor. "The equivalent of 'location, location, location' in real estate for us is picking the right vendor," she says. The right telehealth vendor will not only bring the software, but will work with an organization to create a comprehensive, customized solution that suits its unique patient population and other business needs. "Imagine a hospital in a small town in the Midwest: the way that you would provide or engage with that population is very different than how you would if you were in Florida, which sees an influx of people from many different places in the winter."

2. Integrate. "Second, you integrate that customized solution with the existing care experience," Ms. Verstraete says. Health systems often tell Teladoc the No. 1 benefit from incorporating telehealth services in their offerings is that it improves coordination of care. For example, a post-surgery patient may be able to virtually meet with their physician for some of their follow-up appointments. "When a patient experiences the combination of in-person care and virtual care for the first time in that context, it suddenly gives them the confidence in virtual care delivery overall. They have a realization that says 'Oh I didn't know they did this. I didn't know that I could get care this way,' and a confidence that goes along with it. That then extends into visits for less-acute, more-episodic type conditions."

3. Communicate to raise awareness and adoption. "Communication is key. Driving both awareness and adoption by meeting patients where they are today means you have to have a mobile communication strategy," she says. Ms. Verstraete adds that about three quarters of telehealth requests at Teladoc are made from mobile devices, meaning patients are using these services primarily out of convenience. "If you are not reaching people on mobile, you're not going to move the needle."

4. Identify your priorities and customize your plan. In a 2017 Teladoc-issued survey, more than three quarters of the health systems surveyed said integrating telehealth services was a top priority, which demonstrates health systems still have a ways to go in regards to telehealth. " What's exciting to see is that the health systems landscape understands the importance of virtual care and is really resourcing for it at an increasing rate."

"We're trying to overcome ingrained behavior as it relates to care delivery," Ms. Verstraete concludes. "And providers are in a very strong position to break through the primary barriers to telehealth adoption and really affect change because they have a very credible voice with their patients."

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