Many hospitals, healthcare systems and medical practices have already been in the process gradually rolling out telehealth services for their patients, and in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, telehealth services are now booming and are anticipated to skyrocket in the coming months and years.
The question for you as a provider is less about whether you are ready to increase your telehealth offerings, and more about whether you are able to set yourself up to continue providing high-quality, patient-centered care, even if it looks more digital these days.
Here are some guidelines and extra tips that First Choice Health and other healthcare system providers can consider as they shift to telehealth, ensuring a smooth transition between the in-person exam and the virtual visit.
Technology: Tweak it and test it so you can trust it.
Set up high-quality video and sound equipment: Good video and audio quality depend on your camera and microphone. But high-quality camera and microphone options don't have to break your bank - there are many affordable options available.
Pro-Tip: Positioning - Remember to keep your camera position at eye level and look at the camera, not the projected image of your patient on your screen. This will help you maintain eye contact.
Pro-Tip: Anticipation - Know where things might go wrong or drop off. Video calls can use a lot of bandwidth, so closing background programs reduces the risk of frozen video streams, and you can avoid spotty WiFi and power interruptions with ethernet connections and plugged-in power adapters instead.
Get acquainted with your telehealth platform ahead of time.
Beyond which button does what, understand what the patient sees on their screen during a session to help troubleshoot problems they may have during the visit.
Pro-Tip: Patient Data - Does your telehealth platform integrate with patient electronic health records (EHRs)? If not, be sure to understand what data you need to manually capture and document about the visit well before the actual appointment.
Pro-Tip: Practice - If you're feeling nervous about a telehealth appointment, practice and walk through the process with a trusted colleague to get used to the feeling.
The appointment: Treat virtual visits as you would in-person visits.
Familiarize yourself with the patient's concerns beforehand.
As you would do with in-person appointments, read up on why a patient is coming to see you. You'll be more prepared for the visit, and the appointment may even be more efficient.
Read up on reimbursement and payment policies in your state.
Many patients will have questions about the intersection of telehealth services and their health care coverage. While your practice, hospital or medical system may have navigation teams or staff to help with these questions, brushing up on your knowledge can provide answers in the moment, leading to a more positive patient-provider experience.
Communicate clearly with patients about the process at various touch points.
Sending information to patients about your use of telehealth prior to their appointment through multiple channels - email newsletters, patient portals, written letters, etc. - will help them understand what to expect and answer any questions they may have. It can even help you reinforce your own process.
Pro-Tip: Patient Interaction - Interpersonal communication approaches, such as introducing yourself as the provider at the start of the session and making a non-medical connection with the patient, can help mimic the in-person exam and create a positive interaction.
Pro-Tip: Active Communication - During a virtual visit, patients may not be able to see or notice what you're doing. Let your patients know when you are taking notes or looking elsewhere to positively affirm your engagement.
Pro-Tip: Next Steps - Once the appointment ends, be clear about what a patient needs to do next with a written outline and any relevant timelines.
Adhere to your usual process and clinical guidelines as you would in a physical exam.
Even if you can't conduct a physical exam, you can still ask good questions, take a thorough history of present illness, assess a patient's overall appearance and determine if they need additional in-person care.
Pro-Tip: What to Wear - As a medical provider, you still want to be able to instill confidence in patients, so dressing professionally is just as important as it is in-person.
Pro-Tip: Additional Information - You may be able to ask patients to move on-screen to better understand connections between pain and movement, and an added view into a patient's home might provide clues about other factors affecting their health.
Identify and evaluate success metrics.
What does a successful telehealth appointment look like - better yet, how do you know telehealth is working well for you and your practice or your health care system? Asking patients about their experience as a follow-up can inform future virtual visits and help you refine your process, especially around patient satisfaction.
Pro-Tip: Other Key Metrics - As you see more telehealth patients, other metrics to consider include virtual visit volume, number of additional appointments available as a result of virtual visits, provider satisfaction with virtual visits and number of providers trained and using telehealth services.
Above all: Be patient.
The path to widespread telehealth adoption will surely have bumps along the way, but the best thing you can do as a provider is to recognize it is an evolving field, with potential to improve access to health care for millions of people. The more you can set yourself up to have a fundamentally sound telehealth practice with some of the guidelines above, the more you will be able to deliver high-quality, accessible care and consultation for your patients, both during a pandemic and in less hectic times.