The value of telehealth and the move to digitally enabled care — 3 insights

Becker's Hospital Review In Collaboration with American Medical Association

Nov. 1, 2021

During the pandemic, healthcare organizations embraced telehealth to ensure they could provide access and high quality care to their patients.

Now, nearly two years later, organizations are contemplating how best to move forward, including how to safeguard and optimize opportunities to move towards digitally enabled care.

During the pandemic, healthcare organizations embraced telehealth to ensure they could provide access and high quality care to their patients.

Now, nearly two years later, organizations are contemplating how best to move forward, including how to safeguard and optimize opportunities to move towards digitally enabled care.

During Becker's 6th Annual Health IT + Revenue Cycle Virtual Conference, the American Medical Association sponsored a roundtable discussion on this topic. The AMA's Lori Prestesater, Vice President of Health Solutions, and Meg Barron, Vice President of Digital Health Innovations, talked with healthcare executives from around the country about their digital health successes and challenges.

Three insights:

1. Providers want virtual care to continue as long as their key concerns are addressed. "Physicians are enthusiastic about digital health technologies," Ms. Barron said. "However, that enthusiasm is directly tied to a solution's ability to help them take better care of patients or reduce their administrative burdens." Four key concerns consistently expressed by physicians when evaluating digital solutions are whether a solution works and has an evidence base, how providers will be compensated, what liability and privacy issues exist, and how implementation and change management will occur.

2. One of the major advantages of telehealth is improved access. Access can be widely defined; virtual technology has made significant inroads in improving access in multiple ways:

COVID-19 access. The department chair of a hospital in the Northeast noted that telehealth helped them provide quick access and treatment to patients during the pandemic. "It worked extremely well in this emergency situation," he said. "Patients would call in and report symptoms, and we could make decisions about their care. We provided pulse oximeters and followed up via telehealth."
Specialty access. A CMO from a Midwestern health network — who is the father of a daughter with a chronic illness — shared his personal experience with specialty care from multiple systems. "I can't imagine how my daughter could receive specialty care without telehealth. Care that was previously siloed can now be accessed nationally, if not internationally."
Behavioral health access. A chief population health officer from a health system in the Midwest said telehealth access to mental health services was a big success. "Patients found the pandemic very rough, and many needed some behavioral health services, but they didn't necessarily want to try to see somebody because of the stigma associated with it," she said. "Being able to offer telebehavioral health services to our patients, and frankly, even to our employees, was a great success."
3. Challenges such as patient hesitancy, bandwidth issues and measurement of value remain. Although patients are generally positive about telehealth, some have found it difficult to onboard to telehealth platforms. One provider in the Northeast said younger patients love the ability to text and connect virtually, but elderly patients often prefer in-person visits for the human connection.

Also, many healthcare organizations have faced connection issues. A West Coast CMO explained, "We have 24 hospitals, and many of them are in rural areas. We really struggled with bandwidth."

Finally, measuring the value of these technologies remains a challenge. Ms. Prestesater pointed out that it can be a "many-year equation to evaluate the value for a chronically ill patient." AMA has a recently released Return on Health value framework that can help an organization quantify the comprehensive value of virtual care.

Although some participants warned that virtual care may not be less expensive, it can be hard to quantify savings from things like avoiding emergency care. A Midwest hospital executive said, "Home-based care has led to a substantial reduction in visits to the emergency room and days in the hospital for us. The problem in the whole equation is it's hard to measure something that doesn't happen."