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Last December, I experienced my first telehealth interaction as a patient. I’ve talked about telehealth for years, but it was always from a conceptual or product-oriented perspective—never from personal experience. I decided to give telehealth a shot because (at the risk of embarrassing myself) I had a rash that needed attention, and I wanted a quick solution at 7:00 PM on a Friday night. I eagerly opened the app, entered the waiting room, and met with a healthcare professional in a matter of minutes.

But, my telehealth appointment did not meet my expectations—not by a long shot. I hadn’t prepared for the appointment at all; I didn’t plan out where I would take the call, what I would wear, what I would say, or how I would give the provider the information he needed to treat me—all things you subconsciously do before an in-person appointment. That lack of preparation soured the experience, and I left with a pessimistic outlook about the future of telehealth. Little did I know that half a world away, a virus was spreading that would completely change telehealth’s position within the healthcare continuum.

The Covid-19 outbreak is shining a massive spotlight on the healthcare industry’s need for virtual services. In response to the pandemic, telemedicine has expanded rapidly, as it fulfills the unique need of allowing providers to continue care while bypassing the health risks of in-person treatment.

But while telehealth seems like an ideal solution to the difficult challenge of delivering healthcare services while social distancing, it’s not without drawbacks. Healthcare professionals are struggling to keep up with quickly evolving regulatory changes, which makes it difficult for them to know when they can provide telehealth services and how they can ensure maximum reimbursements. On top of that, patients are struggling to embrace telemedicine—largely due to their lack of familiarity with these services. In fact, Amwell’s 2019 Consumer Survey indicates that only 8% of U.S. consumers tried telehealth prior to Covid-19. In the midst of the pandemic, patients are motivated by necessity, and analysts at Forrester Research are projecting that more than one billion virtual healthcare interactions will occur by the end of the year. That’s a tremendous jump in telehealth usage—and it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for patients or providers.

As we accept widespread adoption of telehealth as the new norm (or at least as a component of the new norm), I strongly encourage providers to dedicate time toward improving the remote patient experience and tackling the practical challenges that arise.

Anticipate technical issues
The success of a telehealth treatment session has a lot to do with the technology providers (and their patients) use before, during, and after the appointment. So, before launching a telemedicine program in their clinics, providers should identify the technology their patients are most comfortable using—taking into consideration those patients who are stereotyped as being tech-averse. After all, this recent Pew Research Center analysis found that the number of internet users who are age 65 and older has increased from 14% in 2000 to 73% today. More seniors are embracing technology as the years pass—and providers should not exclude them from their telehealth considerations. The key to understanding if telehealth is the right fit for an older patient population is simple: just ask them.

In addition to gauging what patients can handle technology-wise, building an effective telemedicine program requires having the right equipment as well as a strong internet connection that can support live two-way video streaming. An effective setup (with a reliable and secure internet connection) optimizes the patient experience and reduces the risk of appointment gaffes.

It’s worth noting that—in addition to using the right technological tools—providers should double-check that their tools are in working order and capable of handling the demands of the service. For example, if a clinic’s internet connection isn’t great, providers should use ethernet cords when conducting telehealth sessions to ensure not only that the connection won’t drop, but also that they don’t miss any relevant information pertaining to their patients’ health.

Prepare patients for virtual visits
For many patients, shifting from in-person visits to virtual appointments can feel uncomfortable. Medical visits are typically private and intimate by nature, so it’s completely normal for patients to be hesitant—or even fearful—of receiving healthcare services online. That reluctance is augmented by the prospect of receiving treatment from a provider whom the patient has never met in person—something quite common with telehealth. According to this Sykes report on Americans’ perceptions of telehealth during COVID-19, 23% of respondents said their biggest deterrent from making a future telehealth appointment was that they felt uncomfortable speaking with an unfamiliar healthcare professional.

Thus, it’s critical that telehealth providers take the time to think through the patient journey, placing a bigger-than-normal emphasis on what happens before and after the appointment. Patients are no longer driving to the provider’s office and sitting in the waiting room—which means the manner in which they prepare for their medical appointments is not the same. In fact, some patients probably don’t prepare at all. They might be in the middle of homeschooling their children—or perhaps they just rolled out of bed. Providers should be mindful of these conditions when setting up and running telehealth visits. Understanding patients’ current situation will help providers engage with them in new and meaningful ways.

Speaking of preparation: On the provider side, it’s key to easing patients’ apprehension and facilitating a better telehealth experience. This starts with ensuring that clinic staff are properly trained and completely comfortable providing these services—from start to finish. Often, patients can tell when a provider is uncomfortable during a telehealth interaction, so it’s important for providers to practice administering telehealth so they can make sure they deliver the polished experience patients are looking for.

Clearly communicate the services you offer
Patients are becoming more trusting of remote care technology—but even the best telehealth program is useless if patients are not aware that it exists. Start by notifying current and recent patients that telehealth is an option if they need or want to continue care. Then, help them understand what telehealth looks like in your clinic:

  • Craft messaging that informs patients about new telehealth options;
  • Explain why telehealth is a viable and effective alternative to in-person care;
  • Describe how telehealth can benefit patients (e.g., they will have access to the guidance and expertise that’s critical to their health); and
  • State whether the services are covered by in-network insurance carriers.

Additionally, providers should update every aspect of their public-facing presence, including—but not limited to—websites, social media accounts, and Google My Business listings. Providers can also leverage existing patient marketing and relationship management software to securely update and engage with patients.

Find what works for your patients
Telemedicine can significantly improve access to health care, something that—for many patients—is life-changing. That said, providers should judiciously select the telehealth services they will provide because, at the end of the day, those services need to make sense for patients and fall within the clinic’s capabilities.

It’s also important to vary your approach to telehealth depending on the population you’re serving. For example, if patients come to your clinic specifically to receive manual therapy (e.g., dry needling, scraping, cupping, and spinal adjustments), remote therapy services will be useless to your client base. However, there are many types of patients whose needs can be met virtually—it’s just a matter of pairing them with the right remote care option.

For instance, live video (or synchronous) telehealth visits may be suitable for patients who require an at-work environmental assessment or those who are looking for more education and guidance in relation to their care plans. Alternatively, store-and-forward (or asynchronous) telemedicine tools may be better suited to patients who are recovering from an injury at home, as these applications allow providers to send pre-recorded materials that demonstrate stretches and strengthening techniques to help patients safely and accurately execute therapeutic exercises on their own.

These are, without a doubt, trying times. Many providers feel overextended and underprepared when it comes to implementing viable telehealth solutions—but these solutions may be exactly what allows them to continue serving patients and keep their business afloat. Telehealth is here to stay—and remote care strategies must be clearly communicated, well-executed, and purposefully aligned with patient needs and expectations.

Picture: Andrey Suslov, Getty Images