Telehealth has been around for years. Why did it take a global crisis to wake up the healthcare industry?
There’s only one surprise about Covid-19 and that’s everyone’s surprise at the severity of the ongoing catastrophe. We’ve known this was coming. The World Health Organization told us another influenza-like pandemic was coming our way. And we’ve known a pandemic would wreak havoc not only on the human body, but on our healthcare system. Rural hospitals have been closing all over America for years. Hospitals of all sizes struggle to balance patient demand with their number of ICU beds and physician availability. Medical debt is the leading cause of bankruptcy, while other people forego treatment because they can’t afford or can’t access it.
These challenges have been around (and growing worse) for years. But so has a solution: telemedicine. So why did it take a pandemic to wake up the healthcare industry?
Changing Hindsight to Insight
Two failures have become obvious as the Coronavirus has spread across the planet. One is the lack of telehealth adoption. If a robust virtual infrastructure had already been in place, many of our rising capacity management struggles – such as frightened patients crowding emergency departments and private practices – would be dramatically mitigated. Patients with minor illnesses or mild flu could be treated remotely without clogging facility flows so that patients with severe COVID-19 and other issues could be treated faster.
The other failure is slightly less obvious but still critical. Something has become clear in the pandemic conversations taking place in workplaces, press conferences and medical appointments: many patients do not understand how telehealth works. Some are so confused that they’ve referred to telecommuting recommendations as telehealth, as if it’s a protective measure that covers any kind of remote activity. Others have used telehealth apps for simple issues like eye infections and assume that telemedicine isn’t clinically sophisticated enough to address conditions like COVID-19. Others believe that telemedicine is so sophisticated and futuristic that it’s only available at a few facilities like the Mayo Clinic or Sloan Kettering. Still others have never even heard of telemedicine at all.
Here’s why this is an epic fail. Almost all healthcare interactions are initiated by the patient. Deploying an advanced telemedicine program accomplishes little when patients don’t know it exists. But when patients know that virtual care is available – that they can see a physician remotely at a time that’s convenient for them, without leaving their home, to get early treatment and accelerate their recovery – that benefits patients and payers alike. It can also save the lives of severely ill patients who need hospital beds and advanced care.
Just as critically, telemedicine options help protect the providers and first responders fighting on the front lines of this pandemic. When a patient chooses a virtual consult over an in-person visit, that’s one less case of exposure for the clinician. In an era where we’re already challenged by provider shortages, preserving both the health and availability of our most valuable providers is urgent. Physicians and nurses are putting themselves at risk every day to help others; hospitals can protect their highest credentialed clinicians by sequestering them while they continue to treat patients.
The Call for Education
For decades now, telemedicine vendors and adopters have been sounding a wake-up call. Industry conversations about access to care, rising costs and capacity management are ongoing but telehealth leaders have actually offered a solution. Telemedicine can bring medical care to the underserved, reduce healthcare costs, mitigate provider burnout, improve patient outcomes and more. Today’s virtual care delivery is a data-driven, evidence-based experience that can connect rural patients to advanced expertise, foster provider collaboration and increase visibility into the patient’s healthcare history.
Yet adoption has been slow – and maddeningly, healthcare leaders have done little to foster a paradigm shift. Most patients still believe they need to drive to a hospital or clinic when they’re sick. Only a deliberate and sustained education on virtual care delivery models will change that and unlock telemedicine benefits across the industry. Yet this hasn’t been done to a meaningful extent – and now we’re seeing the disastrous effects as panicking patients flood already overwhelmed hospital waiting rooms, retail clinics and urgent care centers.
COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the capacity management crisis. We’re already hearing about shortages of ICU beds, the brutal choices in triaging terminal patients and the delays in care for other patients. Providers are sacrificing their health and sometimes their lives to care for the infected. Yet the tide of patients swarming healthcare facilities is only going to rise higher.
Taking Control of An Unprecedented Crisis
It’s not too late. Healthcare networks can help educate communities and the population at large about telemedicine through social media, websites, text alerts and patient portals. Organizations who have virtual capabilities in place can help patients understand what to do and where to go; when to seek help and who can provide it. Text messages and wide-scale alerts can educate patients on outbreaks, prevention behaviors and recovery tips. Every patient with manageable illness who’s treated remotely helps a sicker patient get treated that much faster – and offers providers and first responders some of the protection they deserve.
The spread of this pandemic makes it easy to feel as if we’ve woken up in a dystopian film. We still don’t know exactly how the coming months will play out but we can act now to address the crisis. Virtual care can reach a greater number of patients and protect at-risk providers – which is why it’s time to ignite telemedicine adoption across the industry.