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Telemedicine and the Patient Education Gap

If you regularly follow virtual care news, you might have seen a recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation. It asked nearly 1,000 adult respondents if they use their smartphone to complete 10 healthcare-related tasks. For some people, the results seemed to confirm that patients do not like virtual services, since “access video calls with providers” ranked dead last at 10 percent.

Doctors have long worried that their patients won’t accept or adapt to telemedicine. But – seen another way – what the Kaiser results really confirm is that patients are more than willing to use digital tools for healthcare. Consider the survey results, where respondents indicate they use their phone or other technology to:

  • Research health symptoms: 70 percent
  • Track fitness, nutrition or sleep: 51 percent
  • Access medical records or lab tests: 44 percent
  • Research the quality of providers: 40 percent
  • Fill prescriptions: 39 percent
  • Manage chronic conditions: 22 percent
  • Manage healthcare spending: 21 percent
  • Manage mental health: 20 percent
  • Research the cost of services: 20 percent
  • Access video calls with providers: 10 percent

It’s no surprise that patients ranked Googling their symptoms and tracking workout performance so high on the list; when patients are aware of digital options and their benefits, they adopt them. These results show patients are comfortable with digital health. So why aren’t they pursuing actual visits with their doctors?

Deciphering Low Engagement

Another recent survey, this one with data from J.D. Power, may have the answer. It says almost three-quarters of Americans either don’t have access to the right technology or aren’t aware of telehealth options. Juxtaposed with patients’ familiarity with other wellness apps, the survey makes it clear that the real telemedicine gap isn’t willingness. It’s education.

As Greg Truex, Managing Director of Health Intelligence at J.D. Power, said, “Telehealth technology is maturing, but the relatively low levels of engagement we’re seeing implies that major initiatives in both patient education and consumer experience are the next steps in making telehealth a staple for healthcare delivery in the United States.”

Essentially, patients don’t know what they don’t know – that telemedicine exists, that it’s clinically effective and that their insurance will often cover it. Even when they do understand the basics, they may assume their providers don’t offer it.

4 Steps to Educating Patients

Instead of waiting for your patients to express an interest in virtual health, try helping them onto a digital path in these four steps:

1. Identify the right patients. Many patients can benefit from virtual services. Professionals who travel for business, homebound patients recovering from surgery and elderly patients with mobility limitations might appreciate receiving care outside of your office. Millennials and Generation Z patients in particular have shown enthusiasm for telemedicine. And don’t forget the biggest user group of virtual care: mothers.

2. Explain the benefits. As you would with any new technology or service, help your patients understand what’s in it for them, such as cost savings, shorter wait times for appointments and staying home when sick. Define the conditions that can be treated virtually and when they’ll need to come in.

3. Stress data protection and security. Trust is vital with telemedicine. Many patients are nervous about cybersecurity and the confidentiality of their diagnostic images and medical data. Assure them your solutions and protocols are secure, just as their information is protected when transmitted to another provider or their payer through an online channel.

4. Walk them through a virtual visit. Instead of leaving patients and caregivers to navigate a remote visit on their own from home, do a trial run when they’re in your office. Answer any questions so there are no snags or confusion the first time they have a virtual consult.

Advocating for Telemedicine Awareness

Carl Jung famously said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” True, he was referring to psychology and not telemedicine, but the same principle applies. A lack of patient awareness leads to poor utilization – which is then interpreted as “natural” disinterest, leading to a defeatist attitude that pushes virtual health even further into the shadows. But there’s nothing natural about it. Once patients experience telehealth, many embrace it with enthusiasm. In fact, 74% of Millennials prefer telemedicine visits to office appointments.

Patient education has always been at the heart of healthcare. Efforts like teaching caregivers to avoid bedsores or helping patients with diabetes learn injection techniques aren’t optional – they’re an integral part of good medicine. Telehealth has already evolved from a side street on the healthcare map to a major highway, one preferred by many patients. It’s time for providers to integrate virtual care awareness with the ongoing push for healthcare literacy.

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