Will telehealth withstand the hype? 2 CIOs weigh in

Hospitals and health systems across the U.S. scurried to launch and expand telehealth programs in March 2020. One year later, telehealth still holds a steady place in healthcare delivery, but its significance in the future is not set in stone.

Spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent social distancing protocols, telehealth adoption soared nearly 4,000 percent from previous levels last April, according to healthcare software company CoverMyMeds.

Telehealth as a means to prevent the spread of the virus topped patients' and providers' reasons for usage at 70 percent, followed by convenience at 56 percent and 40 percent for those who used it because their providers weren't offering in-person care.

Despite its convenience, 39 percent of providers said telehealth usage actually increased their administrative burden, according to the February CoverMyMeds report. More than half (53 percent) of providers reported no change to their administrative burden, while 8 percent said virtual care decreased it.

Having surpassed one year of living through the pandemic, Becker's Hospital Review spoke with two CIOs to reflect on telehealth usage over the past year and what lies ahead.

Question: What has been the biggest change to your telehealth initiative(s) since March 2020?

Jim Daly, CIO at Washington Regional Medical System (Fayetteville, Ark.): While Washington Regional had performed telehealth visits by phone in March 2020, we did not have a video telemedicine capability in the ambulatory clinic setting. We quickly stood up a new video telemedicine platform, and, as of March 17, 2021, we have completed more than 80,000 video telemedicine visits across our Northwest Arkansas community. This is an amazing accomplishment and a great example of our clinicians, operations and tech teams working together to innovate in order to provide continuity of care to our patients.

Randy Davis, vice president and CIO at CGH Medical Center (Sterling, Ill.): Let's be honest here. For most of us, the biggest change since March of 2020 is we actually finally have a telehealth initiative. Some may have dipped a toe in it back in 2020, primarily those with at-risk contracts, but for most it wasn't something they could honestly toot their horn about. Forget specifics, the fact most hospitals are actually using some form of telehealth is the biggest change.

Q: What do you expect your telehealth program to look like in March 2022?

JD: Now that we have a video telemedicine platform, our efforts going forward shift to optimizing the technology within the provider workflow to improve both the provider and patient experience. We want the technology to enable our caregivers to deliver the best care possible, and from a patient perspective we want to provide a reliable, high quality experience with their provider. Our ideal state is to seamlessly integrate telemedicine workflow within the EHR, and optimize the technology platform to function well using whatever method a patient may use to engage with us – desktop or mobile.

RD: By March of 2022, I think most IT guys would say they have the vendors and infrastructure figured out. We'll have the right equipment on hand, and IT won't be the rate-limiting factor. I don’t think IT can define what the actual use will look like as so much in medicine today is in line with the adage of 'follow the money'. Those with at-risk contracts will lead the way.

If reimbursement goes away for at-home visits, use will plummet. What will remain are the things that survive as useful productivity or patient-experience enhancing uses – video visits for post discharge 'how are you doing' by case managers; use of video visits when an on-call physician gets their evening or weekend 'call this patient' message.

Pagers have been gone forever. Today, the app you use for receiving pages is now enabled for video calls to your patients and tied into your existing EHR/scheduling system, allowing for easy patient lookups. The same app allows for a parent at work to be involved in a video visit with a newborn and their spouse, for example.

I don't think IT can define how it will be used, but we'll have a clear on-ramp to enable whatever good use the medical staff comes up with. If it continues to be reimbursed, I think most EHRs and supporting revenue cycle products will have a good tie-in via scheduling to the video app being used.


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