Using Telehealth to Improve Patient Experience, Outcomes, and Overall Wellness
This article about using telehealth to improve patient experience was written by Katie McBeth, with Clinicient
For years, the use and implementation of Telehealth steadily gained traction in the healthcare space.
Then 2020 happened.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many clinics to switch to remote care services. These circumstances offered Telehealth an opportunity to shine in the spotlight.
Telehealth and the Patient Experience – A History
Years of prior research into Telehealth showed significant health and patient satisfaction benefits over time. International groups like the Transatlantic Telehealth Research Network (TTRN) have been advocating for a global Telehealth revolution for some time. Though it’s more popular now, Telehealth isn’t a new option.
But how did TTRN and other advocates help to prepare Telehealth – and the healthcare world for 2020’s challenges?
- Researching emerging Telehealth technologies
- Developing international best practice standards
- Promoting global collaboration
Continue reading to explore the research and best practices of this technology and consider how you can incorporate Telehealth into your organization’s regular offerings.
The Evidence of Telehealth’s Benefits
The first published research on telecommunication tech in healthcare appeared in 1878 in The Lancet, according to a 2016 publication by TTRN. This report focused on using telephone calls to reduce unnecessary doctor visits. Back then, it was literally “telehealth,” utilizing available technology — the telephone — to assist patients. Telehealth has evolved significantly since then, and the benefits have only increased over the past 142 years.
Today’s Telehealth is exceptionally useful in chronic disease management.
Much of Telehealth’s research has been focused on patients with chronic illnesses. Why? This population of patients experience more challenges with health care than other patients.
- More frequent hospital and doctor visits
- Higher readmission rates
- Medication management concerns
- Increased healthcare costs
Luckily, all these concerns can be addressed to some extent by Telehealth visits.
Some of the biggest benefits of Telehealth for patients include:
- Lower readmission rate for ERs and hospitals
- Improved self-management and engagement with providers
- Lower healthcare costs
- Improved access to care
- Less exposure to communicable diseases for patients and doctors
Improving Patient Experience With Telehealth
Lower readmission rates for ERs and hospitals
Unfortunately, for many patients with chronic illnesses, disease flare ups and chronic pain often result in unexpected hospital stays and ER visits. Following a hospital visit, many patients also face an increased risk of readmission. Telehealth can help reduce this risk.
Studies show that Telehealth can provide patients with emergency access to a physician when they need it most. Telehealth follow-ups with doctors after an initial hospital stay can improve the patient’s transition back into everyday life.
Doctors can remotely monitor the patient’s condition, including blood pressure, oxygen levels, heart rates, and more if the patient is given the right tools. In addition, the physician can advise the patient if they have concerns or questions related to their condition – all remotely.
According to a 2016 brief from the American Hospital Association (AHA), many hospitals using Telehealth reported numerous benefits.
Three effective forms of Telehealth included the following.
- “Hospital at home” models, where patients with chronic conditions were monitored remotely by medical staff and visited at their home when receiving treatment.
- Offering Telehealth specialist visits for people living in rural areas.
- Providing Telehealth visits for patients in nursing homes.
All models showed a significant decrease in patient hospital readmission and ER visits. This alleviated the burden on the hospital system and improved the patients’ outcomes.
Improved self-management and engagement with providers
Thanks to Telehealth, physicians and patients can both have a more active role in a patient’s care plan. Patients can better grasp their own care needs. In turn, their attending physician can provide them with tips on how to self-manage – and self-monitor – while healing at home.
However, the biggest challenge with a successful Telehealth offering is encouraging and empowering the patient to be an active participant in the process. This is the main reason the patient-physician relationship is vital to the patient’s success.
Some patients may already have a comfortable relationship with the physician. Physicians will need to focus on building this relationship quickly with new patients. Luckily, providers do have the advantage of seeing their patients in the patient’s home. This may be a more comfortable environment for the patient than the doctor’s office. Plus, the patient doesn’t have to worry about outside factors when attending their sessions. These include:
- Getting time off work
- Finding childcare
Telehealth provides benefits for patients in other areas, too. Safety and convenience are often mentioned when patients talk about their experiences with Telehealth.
A 2020 study from an HIV clinic in Missouri concluded that patients were “relieved to avoid travel and virtually all are relieved to avoid physical contact with the clinic” during the COVID-19 pandemic. This same study found that over 90% of patients ranked Telehealth as “better” or “just as good as” traditional in-person visits. The significantly high number is promising – now and into the future.
Telehealth improves patient experience by lowering healthcare costs.
For certain patients, Telehealth is often a more affordable alternative to in-person visits.
Chronic illness patients often require frequent doctor visits, and even a single hospital or ER visit can quickly rack up costs. But, as mentioned, Telehealth options can help lower instances of hospital admissions and ER visits. Additionally, in-person visits require time away from work, daycare for children, and gas or fare for transportation for many other patients.
Improved access to care
Since Telehealth only requires an internet connection, a computer or smartphone, and a webcam, the service is far more accessible in the modern age than in-person visits.
There’s no worrying about travel, traffic, parking, accessing a building, or other similar concerns when using Telehealth. With fewer barriers, patients may feel less stressed about making appointments.
For patients with chronic illnesses or disabilities, offering a more accessible experience can be a major draw when choosing a provider. Patients already worry about their health; they shouldn’t also have to worry about the ways they receive care.
However, some barriers still exist for patients, and the pandemic helped illuminate those gaps in care.
A lack of access to broadband internet made virtual appointments impossible for nearly 40% of rural patients in Michigan, according to a researched publication from the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association. To overcome these technology barriers, local hospitals offered telephone appointments and “virtual visits.” During these sessions, patients could be assessed from their car at the clinic or in a designated location. Moving forward, the researchers highlight the importance of advocating for high-speed internet access in rural areas to overcome this final barrier to remote care and addressing rural health disparities.
Once this barrier is addressed, the benefits for improved access to care will far outweigh the drawbacks – even in rural areas or with aging populations.
Less exposure to communicable diseases for patients and doctors
Health experts know that pandemics are not unavoidable, and the COVID-19 pandemic provided the perfect test case for why remote care is vital in protecting at-risk patients and the community.
While vaccines may be on their way for the current pandemic, future pandemics are still possible. Plus, waiting rooms can be the perfect spreading grounds for milder diseases, like influenza and common colds. For both the patients and clinic staff, offering Telehealth visits can be a safer and healthier alternative than in-person visits.
The 6 Best Practices for A Successful Virtual Clinic
Now that you know some of the benefits of Telehealth, you may be wondering how you can get the most out of a Telehealth program at your practice. TTRN has compiled a list of global best practices for Telehealth based on their international research published in 2016. Yes, there have been changes and advancements, but the core principles of improving patient experience are similar.
1. Research your patient population.
Start by conducting a thorough analysis of the local population – and potential patient group.
- Do they have access to high-speed internet?
- What is their level of general healthcare and technology literacy – and can it be improved?
- Would they be interested in a regular Telehealth offering/appointments if available?
- What equipment would they need in their homes to ensure visits are similar to in-clinic appointments?
You may need to develop resources to cover knowledge gaps. This includes graphics that show proper physical therapy exercise techniques and form, or printed instruction sheets. Once you’ve done your research, you can begin to create a Telehealth program that considers all potential barriers for your patients.
2. Assess patient engagement and motivation.
For each patient to get the most out of Telehealth, they’ll need to be adequately engaged in their treatment plan and process. Not all patients are alike, so before switching patients to Telehealth, you’ll want to perform a self-assessment of their interest in the program.
- Will they stay engaged in the process, or will their home be too full of distractions?
- Is the patient more likely to remember in-person visits over Telehealth visits?
You’ll also want to consider the technology available to them and their familiarity with their devices. If they’re technologically challenged, they may need a detailed step-by-step list of instructions before their first appointment. Even then, they may not feel motivated to participate in the process if they think it is too challenging to be successful. Consider how you and your team can address gaps in their healthcare or technology literacy every step of the way.
3. Implement “smart-home” technologies when applicable.
If your organization or specific payers require checking a patient’s blood pressure, weight, or other vitals at each visit, you’ll need to find at-home alternatives when creating your Telehealth program.
Luckily, with the widespread use of smart technology and personal health aids, some patients may already have the tech you need to check on their vitals. If patients aren’t already equipped, there are affordable wearable or remote monitoring alternatives that you can provide them. Examples include:
- At-home blood pressure monitors
- Finger oxygen monitors
- Bluetooth ECG devices
Additionally, PT clinics can adjust their exercise routines to include common items found in the home or affordable alternatives that patients can purchase online. There are plenty of ways to adapt physical therapy exercises to improve the patient experience.
4. Offer accessible, easy, and secure messaging services between clinic staff and the patient.
This type of communication helps patients stay more engaged in their treatment plan. Ask your patients how they prefer to communicate with the clinic. Give them options for receiving reminders like phone calls, text messages, or email. Then evaluate your options for an affordable communication tool that meets HIPAA compliance and your patient’s needs.
Your staff can send graphics or checklists to patients to help them maintain their care plan. In turn, patients can access the portal to ask questions when they have them.
5. Train physicians, assistants, and other patient-facing staff on how to use your Telehealth system.
While each patient will need to learn how to use your Telehealth system, so will your staff. Patients may ask about functionality or have troubleshooting questions. Your team will need to be able to answer questions or refer them to your technology specialist. Your staff will also play a vital role in developing or designing patients’ resources, so the patient can have a similar experience at home as they would in the clinic. You won’t only be teaching your patients how to use and utilize Telehealth services; your staff needs education, too.
6. Find a simple, accessible Telehealth platform.
When choosing a Telehealth platform, ensure that the system is user-friendly for both the patient and your clinic staff. With the variety of Telehealth systems available, you’ll want to know if the perks can benefit your clinic and patients at the same time. The easier a platform is to use for you, the easier it is for your patients.
With BetterPT’s Telehealth platform, patients can schedule appointments with just a quick search of partner providers in their area using the clinic location tool. And with added benefits like cutting-edge security and an interoperable system that integrates with EMR systems, like Insight by Clinicient, BetterPT serves as a valuable partner in Telehealth, increasing referrals, maintaining compliance, and more.
Implementing a Successful Telehealth Program for Your Patients
The last step in creating a successful Telehealth program is choosing when to offer Telehealth visits to patients. Some visits may not be possible with Telehealth. This includes initial evaluations, or when you need to make an in-person assessment of a patient’s injuries. For everything else, there’s Telehealth.
According to TTRN, the best options for Telehealth visits to improve patient experience include:
- Follow up appointments: A quick video or telephone follow up after an initial evaluation might be more accessible to patients with a long commute or a busy schedule.
- Reviewing test results or diagnostics: When reviewing patient X-rays or lab results, typically, the patient doesn’t need to be present to understand the results. If you want to show the patient their results, you can opt for video appointments and use props to illustrate your findings.
- Managing chronic pain or illnesses: Some patients with chronic illnesses may prefer virtual visits in the comfort of their homes. For patients with chronic pain, traveling to and from the clinic may create further discomfort. Virtual visits help the patient access care. If they have frequent appointments, they’ll save money over time.
- Home evaluations and safety checks: If your patient needs help adapting their home environment to their care needs, you can set up virtual appointments to assess their home. With the patient’s consent, you can use their webcam to view common areas in their home and suggest adjustments and improvements. Patients can even act out common activities, like lifting their baby from a crib, reaching high shelves, or other scenarios that cause strain. This form of Telehealth helps the patient feel more engaged in their care plan, as they’ll maintain a safer environment at home while seeking treatment.
Improve Patient Experience Via Telehealth Into the Future
Yes, the pandemic helped elevate Telehealth’s presence in 2020. However, the service has a long history of benefits and success for patient outcomes, experience, and wellness. For these reasons, this technology will continue to grow in popularity.
Now may not seem like the right time to implement so much change into your practices, but it actually is. Taking these steps now helps you and your patients later – it’s the perfect opportunity to ensure that your clinic is equipped to succeed.
Finding ways to elevate your patient offerings keeps your practice ahead of the curve when it comes to running your business. Give your patients what they need – and what they want. Utilize the options available to you whenever possible. If you’re curious to learn more about Telehealth and how your clinic can benefit, request a demo of BetterTelehealth today.
Katie McBeth is a writer and healthcare researcher living in the Pacific Northwest. As a member of the Clinicient team, Katie is dedicated to helping PTs, OTs, and SLPs adapt to industry changes, grow their practices, and form meaningful connections with their patients. You can find more of Katie’s writing on the Clinicient blog.