2020 has been the year of rapid telehealth adoption and advancement due to the COVID pandemic. According to CDC reports, telehealth utilization spiked as much as 154% in late March compared to the same period in 2019. While usage has moderated, it’s clear telehealth is now an instrumental part of healthcare delivery. According to a HIMSS webinar presented in late November, 90% of over 700 survey respondents plan to increase/continue to increase telehealth access, and most organizations expect telehealth volume to increase post-pandemic – by an average of 53%.
What’s now just emerging across the healthcare industry is an appreciation of the strategic potential of telehealth. As provider organizations plan for telehealth in 2021 and beyond, here are 4 key trends to consider.
It all starts here: Secure, Scalable Infrastructure
Early in the pandemic, providers – and CMS – justifiably had an “anything goes” approach to the technology platforms permissible for telehealth services. This latitude in systems has been moderated somewhat by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) guidance to permissible platforms. However, many providers still have not migrated to robust systems with medical-grade security. In 2021, providers will need to evaluate their needs and select platforms to serve at scale.
Additionally, bandwidth and connectivity – for providers and patients – must be scaled. The FCC’s Connected Care Pilot Program, which is allocating $100M for networking and connectivity infrastructure projects, reflects the need. However, this is just the start. According to the HIMSS survey, more than 41% of respondents plan to increase their investment in robust data connectivity post-pandemic. Additionally, as the platforms for delivering telehealth mature to offer a more comprehensive array of digital services, bandwidth and connectivity requirements will increase. Provider organizations will need to understand their requirements, identify emerging technologies, and proactively mature their LAN, WAN and wireless infrastructure.
Patient Experience is Paramount
Patient demand has been a critical driver in telehealth growth; this demand will endure and continually place greater expectations on healthcare organizations. As providers plan for their next iteration of telehealth, patient experience and expectations should be a significant consideration. When selecting a telehealth platform, organizations should strive to unify communications and adopt platforms that manage their telehealth experience through video, text, and chatbots, and improve the patient’s meta experience, including reminders and follow-up surveys.
Patients will also expect streamlined access – with their telehealth experience embedded in their patient portal or accessible via a secure text link. No longer will patients want to download an extra app, go through convoluted access and authorization, or navigate a complicated user interface. The holy grail is fluid horizontal awareness around the entire patient digital experience.
EHR-embedded Telehealth Maximizes Provider Efficiency
In the future, it will be essential for telehealth video functionality to be embedded in the EHR for it to reach its full efficiency and provider adoption. Like patients, physicians seek ease of use, and coding and billing will need integrated solutions to ensure accuracy and timeliness. This may mean migrating telehealth platforms, additional builds in the EHR, or both.
Expect Vendor Consolidation and Maturation
The strategic shifts in telehealth described above will result in noticeable changes in the telehealth vendor market. As of the summer 2020, more than 260 vendors were providing “telehealth” of some variety. Providers should plan for significant changes in this market in 2021 – and plan their telehealth platforms and strategy Leading EHR vendors are investing heavily in their telehealth capabilities or have formed strong partnerships with telehealth partners for integration. Telehealth platforms will remain competitive in the market by focusing on EHR integration, optimizing the patient experience and strong customer support. In the end, there will be significant market consolidation in telehealth, with 10-20 vendors being standouts.
Laura Kreofsky, Pivot Point Consulting Vice President VP, Advisory & Telehealth, brings a wealth of expertise to her role leading Pivot Point Consulting’s Advisory practice. Over the past 27 years, she has led health IT planning, implementation and operations in the private and public sectors; working with and for academic medical centers, community hospitals, insurers, public health agencies and international clients. Her areas of focus include IT-enabled business strategy, IT operations and governance and industry regulations and reform. Additionally, she directs Pivot Point’s thought leadership, providing insight and guidance on health IT policy, emerging technologies and industry trends.