Last year, Cleveland Clinic announced it was expanding its telemedicine program to 24 states outside its Ohio headquarters, signifying a growing trend. More hospitals and health systems are expanding their online patient visits into other markets.
But experts note that just because a patient living outside Ohio can see a physician from the Cleveland Clinic, doesn’t mean they will. Rather than presenting a challenge to small medical practices, it can present an opportunity.
“I, personally, would prefer to see my own primary care physician via telemedicine rather than meeting a new physician and working with them via telemedicine,” says Kristi Fahy, manager of informatics, information governance and standards at the American Health Information Management Association.“Fostering ongoing patient loyalty can be seen as a driver to encourage small physician groups to consider implementing telemedicine.”
Fahy adds that telemedicine extends to connecting patients with specialists. Some patients may have to travel long distances for a referral or don’t have the option of choosing preferred specialists based on where they live. Through their primary care provider’s telemedicine connection, however, they can visit a familiar, nearby office and have a customized telemedicine consultation encounter with a specialist of choice and with their trusted primary care doctor in the room.
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“That small practice physician continues to stay involved in the patient care path through telemedicine,” she says. “These patients can more easily keep up with follow-up visits and hopefully keep up with their medication needs through the physician they are loyal to already.”
Providing telehealth access not only makes a smaller practice more competitive, Fahy says, it can also increase revenue. This can include seeing more patients online and in the practice as well as taking advantage of numerous reimbursement opportunities from government and private payers. This year, Fahy notes, Medicare has 96 codes for telehealth-related payments.
However, like any technological tool available to practices, telehealth must have a focus for the medical practice before implementation, including identifying ways to integrate its use into the practice.
Neha Sachdeva, a director at consultancy KPMG’s advisory healthcare and life sciences practice, says physicians need to first “identify the ‘why’” when implementing telehealth services. This includes the purposes for adoption, asking if it makes sense for the business, and how it can benefit both patients and the practice.
A thorough analysis of how telehealth will keep the practice competitive is critical. This includes taking a hard look at costs to implement the program and what reimbursement opportunities it opens up.
“Telemedicine isn’t a silver bullet to solve all physician problems,” Sachdeva says. “It shouldn’t be the only option to help remediate all the challenges to [patient] access or financial challenges.”
Like Fahy, Sachdeva sees a well-implemented telehealth program as a competitive edge for small practices. As regulatory and reimbursement challenges are reduced, telemedicine will have the opportunity to become more of the norm than the exception in care delivery.
“You also have an evolving patient population, used to doing everything on a smart device or online in all other aspects of their day-to-day activities,” she says. “Patients will start to shop around … so I think telemedicine helps organizations remain competitive and provides a service to help them not only retain patients, but acquire new patients as well.”