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The Evolution of Telehealth

September 12, 2018

Virtual healthcare, facilitated by online telecommunication technology, is going mainstream. Telehealth sessions appeal to consumers since they are less expensive and more convenient than doctor’s office visits. Healthcare providers recognize telehealth benefits in terms of extended outreach and decreased administrative overhead. Telehealth can be an especially helpful resource for those in isolated rural communities. Financial reimbursement from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is also being proposed.

A Mixed Report Card

Despite plenty of encouraging progress, however, there are still glitches that need to be resolved. A recent report from Deloitte, based on consumer survey data, highlighted some key problems that will have to be addressed before telehealth can live up to its full potential. Those include obstacles both new and old.

Generational Differences

Younger patients, who are typically more tech-savvy, manage the logistics of telehealth more easily. They are more adept at using computer and Wi-Fi technologies to learn, shop, and socialize. But older patients are the ones who have the greatest need for healthcare treatments. For them, adoption of telehealth can be a more intimidating process due to their lack of familiarity with digital technology.

New Tech But the Same Old Complaints

For many years, two of the most common consumer complaints regarding doctor visits have been 1) a lack of physician empathy and communication, plus 2) long wait times at the doctor’s office. While telehealth technology can make it easier to connect doctors with patients, it still is not immune to these persistent problems.

Survey results confirm that the majority of respondents are frustrated by long wait times for their telehealth sessions. Those delays are comparable to wait times for face-to-face appointments. Once they interact with the doctor, many also experience a lack of information sharing, coupled with an unsatisfactory bedside (or “webside”) manner. An article in Harvard Business Review (HBR) earlier this year emphasized that for telehealth to succeed, providers need to be well-trained in delivering an outstanding customer service experience on a digital platform.

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Front-End Savings, Back-End Costs

But HBR also recently pointed out that telehealth offers a solution that could annually save billions of dollars and help combat the challenges of increased healthcare costs. Telehealth doctor visits are significantly cheaper, saving approximately 50 percent compared to conventional office visits.

Just because telehealth visits are less costly, however, that doesn’t necessarily translate directly into overall healthcare savings. That’s because when patients visit the doctor more frequently, their utilization of healthcare may increase. They schedule more appointments and procedures, for example, take more medicines, and their physicians order more testing.

Short-Term ROI vs. Improved Patient Outcomes

Enhanced consistency of patient care through telehealth can pay huge financial dividends by improving overall patient outcomes. When a patient receives the continuum of care they need, their health and life expectancy tends to improve. That saves the entire healthcare system money.

The return on investment may be slow at first, however, because only over an extended period of time do those savings begin to have a sustainable bottom-line impact. As a result, the quantifiable benefits of telehealth may be more profound from the perspective of quality care, versus less costly care, at least for the next few years.