Healthcare industry organizations have long been aware of telehealth’s benefits, and by 2019, nine in 10 had a program or a pilot in place, a HIMSS report found.1
The pandemic thrust its adoption and usage into overdrive. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Informatics Association, virtual urgent care visits for one large provider grew by 683% and nonurgent visits expanded by 4,345% between March and mid-April 2020 alone.2
But, despite the massive increase in volume, telemedicine solutions fail to provide all patients with access to care. Technology can be difficult to use, and communications sometimes lack critical security protections. To succeed, telehealth providers are challenged to reexamine their strategies while placing the patient experience front and center to achieve sustainable growth and better health outcomes.
For millions of Americans, particularly in rural areas, telemedicine remains a concern. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said nearly 25 million people are unable to access broadband internet — a minimum requirement for virtual visits.3
“Some try satellite internet, but it’s slower and there’s a lot of voice and video freezing, interfering with the human element of care,” said James Rose, senior manager of wireless solution architects for UScellular™.
A secure wireless solution can deliver the speed and quality patients need. It can also improve care delivery for home healthcare providers. “A physical therapist visiting a patient can share data in real time with a nurse at the clinic. Then, the nurse knows exactly what to do when she arrives,” Rose said.
To develop a wireless access plan, healthcare providers should seek local expertise. “Local telecoms can help providers envision how care at a distance can be delivered efficiently and effectively,” said Rob Havasy, managing director of the Personal Connected Health Alliance and senior director of the HIMSS Thought Advisory Group.
User experience (UX) is central to configuring a positive telehealth connection between patients and healthcare providers. The technology should provide a seamless, easy-to-use interface that integrates smoothly with existing systems, including the electronic health record (EHR).
Working with a telecom company can help healthcare organizations avoid roadblocks as they scale their devices. “Some providers want to deploy more than 10,000 devices. That can be difficult if it’s not carefully planned,” Rose said. A telecom company can test the devices to ensure they work correctly. It can help providers adjust data plans if patients use the devices more than expected, and throttle speeds for those who use them inappropriately.
When telehealth is done right, patients appreciate its convenience and use it more often. In one recent survey, 75% of patients said they were very or completely satisfied with virtual care, and half said they would switch providers to have regular virtual care visits.4
Using remote devices that transmit patient health data to clinicians can boost health outcomes and help avoid emergencies and hospitalizations. In a study published by the American Heart Association, researchers found that 12 months of home blood pressure telemonitoring and drug management lowered hypertension in patients for two years. Patients using telemonitoring were about half as likely as others to have a heart attack or stroke.5
For coaching, telehealth excels in a way a traditional visit cannot. If you want people to seek care before a condition gets out of control and results in a hospital visit, you need to make it easy for them.
Telemedicine solutions can also improve mental health outcomes. “For people dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome, observing them in a home environment can often lead to better treatment,” Havasy said.
Because virtual care can be scheduled more frequently than in-person visits, it encourages better daily health habits, such as taking medications, exercising, eating healthfully and getting adequate sleep.
By helping patients avoid hospital visits, an effective telehealth program can lower costs for providers, studies show. An Arizona ambulatory care center using telehealth reduced hospitalizations by nearly 50% and lowered the 30-day readmission rate by 75%, thereby reducing the overall cost of care by over 34%.6
But to keep costs down as telehealth expands, providers may need to adjust their business models, Havasy said. Organizations continue to pay top dollar for clinic real estate, even as telehealth has reduced the number of in-person visits.
Changing the care delivery model can save money and increase efficiency. One multistate health system moved its telehealth doctors into a separate office building, avoiding the expense and time of sanitized exam rooms and equipment, with fewer administrators and support staffers needed.
To secure patient data, telemedicine providers should ensure that connections are encrypted for both clinicians and patients, said Lee Kim, director of privacy and security / thought advisory at HIMSS. Wired connections for clinicians are preferred. “But it’s wise to have a wireless backup plan to provide redundancy in case one path fails,” she said.
For patient monitoring devices, passwords should be changed from default settings immediately and again periodically in accordance with IT guidelines. Patients’ cellphones and tablets, like clinicians’ devices, should have up-to-date hardware and software and strong firewalls. “It’s best to use provider-issued devices with enforced security policies,” Kim said. In addition, providers should require multifactor authentication and advise patients not to share their devices with anyone.
Organizations should also discuss security options with their telecom partner. “It’s possible to put all traffic on a private network that can only be accessed by the healthcare provider’s devices. Then, these devices will not be discoverable by anyone on a public network,” Rose said. Some telecom companies also partner with software security vendors to lock down patient information and make sure it is HIPAA-compliant.
As telehealth continues to grow, 5G connectivity is expected to pave the way for a host of new capabilities, including improved video quality and faster access to patient healthcare apps. New services could include patient monitoring devices used for hospital transportation in an emergency, augmented and virtual reality tools that help clinicians diagnose problems remotely, and even robotic surgery.
In the next three to five years, latency will go to 1 millisecond, which is a speed faster than our minds can process.
Though some of these applications are likely years away, healthcare providers will need a strong infrastructure in place and should get started by working with their telecom provider to create a sound long-term telehealth strategy.
“Coverage, ease of use and security matter,” Rose said. “A telecom company can show healthcare organizations how to deploy and scale technology in the most secure, efficient and effective way, helping them save money and deliver better patient care.”
Choosing a carrier with a reliable network is key, so you can be confident patients are able to receive care without leaving home.