What should you look for in a telehealth platform? Start with the patient’s perspective.

 In Clinical Care, COVID-19, Patient Experience, Technology

There’s no doubt. Telehealth’s time has arrived – and much faster amid our socially distanced pandemic. As officials across the nation implemented social distancing and stay-at-home orders, it catalyzed and compressed what would have been years of telehealth development and acceptance into the span of months. Its growth was further aided by relaxed restrictions on the use of telehealth from CMS and many larger payers. Additionally, Transcend’s recent survey of family healthcare decision makers revealed 62% of this vital audience say they’re now more likely to embrace telehealth.

Before you begin to sink the significant time and financial costs into a selection, what factors should you consider?

Rather than drowning in the endless lists of features and technologies, one lens through which you can evaluate these platforms is a more holistic look at both the patient and staff experience, and how those myriad of features can help or hurt at each stage.

First, a Primer

“Telehealth” or “telemedicine” represent a host of services and possibilities. The American Telemedicine Association defines it as “the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve a patient’s clinical health status.” This includes:

  • “Synchronous,” or live, interactions: This is the first thing that probably comes to mind: The real-time interactions among providers, patients and families. This recreates the “in-person” experience of speaking face-to-face. Care teams can benefit not just by augmenting their interactions with patients, but also by communicating with each other.
  • Store-and-forward: Health data is securely shared in a non-real-time format. This could be images, documents and prerecorded videos exchanged in the safety of a HIPAA-compliant digital environment.
  • Remote patient monitoring (RPM): Wearable digital devices collect data on vitals, such as heart rate, body temperature and glucose levels, and submit it to the clinician. Clinicians could check a patient’s vitals remotely or be alerted if they reach a certain threshold, helping reduce the need for travel and quickly respond to issues. 

Examining the Impact on Patient and Staff Experiences

How well, and securely, can it connect patients, families and clinicians?
Greater connectedness is of course a cornerstone of telehealth – with video conferencing getting the most attention. It not only enables meaningful provider-to-patient/family communications (virtual visits for regular check-ins, remote assessments, caregiver training and support) but also provider-to-provider contact (for remote IDT meetings, staff check-ins and consultations with other treating clinicians). It can also provide a means to combat social isolation and loneliness, allowing patients to video chat with family and friends, regardless of location or condition.

Basic video conferencing capabilities are generally “table stakes” when it comes to selecting a platform, so look to the details, including security. While HHS began allowing providers to use platforms such as FaceTime and Zoom for virtual visits amid the pandemic, these are not viable long-term solutions. Your permanent telehealth solution should specifically cite HIPAA-compliant security for the entire platform.

Beyond the video conferencing, look for platforms that provide alternative communication tools. Secure instant messaging capabilities provide a great way for your dispersed care team to easily communicate and quickly manage the changing needs of patients, from schedules to dosage modifications – especially if it offers the ability to share photos or videos as an attachment.

Will its interface invite or intimidate?
Telehealth requires buy-in from both your colleagues and patients. Both parties should feel comfortable using it. Design and aesthetics matter, and the interface should be user-friendly – easy to understand, read and operate – with all of the important functions easy to access. Look beyond the feature sets and make sure you and a diverse cross section of your team have an opportunity to take any platform you are considering for a test drive.

How can it empower the family caregiver with the information they need?
The responsibility family caregivers bear was already one of the most challenging long before COVID-19. Now more than ever, these caregivers can benefit from your education and support. Look for a telehealth platform that makes it possible to not only provide real-time communication, but also allows you to store and make easily accessible a library of customized educational materials. This library should ideally be accessible with as much flexibility as possible – at any time, any where, on any device.

Will it support a cohesive experience consistent with your brand?
Just as you wouldn’t make your website plain text, serve patients in an unmarked building or give them literature with no branding, you shouldn’t settle for a virtual environment that doesn’t let you strongly integrate it with your brand and identity. As you examine options, look closely at how customizable it is and whether the platform is completely white label.

A well-branded virtual setting creates a more clear and confident experience for patients while more readily connecting them to the information and resources they need. You can also look for platforms that let you cross-link to other relevant resources elsewhere in your digital ecosystem for easy access.

Will it eliminate time-consuming manual processes, or add even more work?
Depending on the platform, and how seamlessly it is integrated, can make the difference between your telehealth platform being a major timesaver or a serious headache.

Consider how a platform could improve your capability for electronic documentation, how its automation capabilities (such as rule-based protocols) could eliminate tedium, and other features. For instance, the ability to create customizable forms can help simplify the process of monitoring and reporting patient and family member satisfaction. Electronic signature capabilities allow your team to immediately obtain signed consent for care.

Further, a platform with the capability to support automated vital readings (even if you don’t plan to utilize fully right away) could significantly reduce travel requirements and increase responsiveness in the future.

Of course, the other major convenience factor is making sure the platform can integrate into your EMR platform. Your telehealth solution should make it automatic and (relatively) effortless to integrate documents and care notes into your EMR.

Will it help patients and families feel in greater control and in the loop?
Telehealth not only can make more comprehensive and consistent care possible, it’s one tool that will play a major role in giving patients the sense of security and control they desire, because they have a say in how and when they use it. That benefit can extend to the patient’s family as well.

If a platform provides approved, secure access for additional individuals, authorized family members, friends or other health proxies could check on the assessment status of the patient any time, or even join in on the patient’s virtual visit with a clinician. This can help reduce some of the worry and uncertainty families have wondering about their loved one’s day-to-day condition.

Some telehealth platforms also offer the ability to instantly broadcast important information concerning emergency announcements or other rapidly evolving situations to all patients and their families. This can save time and keep all parties well-informed. This may especially be valuable to facility-based providers. Transcend’s recent survey of family caregivers found that 62% of respondents expect senior care facilities to have a system in place to better communicate in the event of a future crisis.

Will it be inclusive of your diverse patient base?
The year 2020 has further pulled back the curtain on the ethnic and cultural disparities felt across the nation, and it’s no secret these inequities exist in the healthcare space as well. While the topic of healthcare equality is complex and multifaceted, one relatively straightforward way you can account for it in your telehealth platform selection is choosing one that offers broad multilingual support. Some feature auto-translation capabilities that can convey information in a patient’s native tongue. It can help create a much more welcoming, less intimidating engagement for the broadest possible segment of your patient and family caregiver base.

Also consider how the platform you choose would be impacted by geographic and socioeconomic barriers in your territory. For instance, platforms that are accessible by cellular data versus only broadband will allow for greater access in rural areas that suffer notoriously bad internet connections and for families who can’t afford internet service.

Choosing Right is Worth the Investment

The number of telehealth providers can seem overwhelming, and, much like house hunting, you may not find the “perfect” solution with every feature and capability. However, by using the lens of day-to-day patient and staff experience as one facet of your decision making, you can better gauge what “must-haves” and tradeoffs are right for your agency.

While the breadth of options is muddy, one thing is clear: The right choice presents a potent opportunity to positively impact your agency’s satisfaction scores, put patients and families in greater control, improve team productivity and deliver improved care.

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