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Todd Shryock, contributing author
Virtual visits will remain important part of engaging with patients even after the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought telehealth into the mainstream for many physicians and patients. Usage rates have declined from highs in April, but experts say that telehealth will play a much bigger role in health care moving forward and that physicians need to embrace it to succeed.
Medical Economics® spoke with Caroline Brennan, Ph.D., vice president of the health division of Escalent, a health care research firm, to learn more about telehealth strategies and trends. The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Medical Economics® (ME): How can doctors encourage people to use telehealth for the first time?
Brennan: I believe that it’s about communication at every stage of the interaction between the patient, the office and the doctor. So right away, when a patient calls the doctor’s office looking for an appointment, the office can offer telehealth as an option and provide a little bit of background about how that visit would work. Another way to encourage usage is to have a lot of information on the practice’s website. It should explain how telehealth works, not just the technological aspects of it, but what to expect, how these visits go, what conditions are appropriate for it, what are inappropriate for it. Also, include frequently asked questions or things such as anonymized patient testimonials to help put people at ease and make them more interested in giving it a try.
ME: How much of the reluctance to use telehealth comes from not having a comfort level with the technology? And how can doctors help patients overcome that?
Brennan: What’s interesting is when we started our research on this, we thought that the technology barrier would be significant. And what we found is that not many people expressed concern about technology, about not being tech savvy, or not having some tools at home. But nonetheless, any time any of us goes to a new website, logs in and uses technology for the first time, there’s always some apprehension. Doctors’ offices can provide very detailed login information, explain exactly what needs to be downloaded, give instructions on how it will work, maybe even provide some test runs, so that people can get more comfortable with it before their first telehealth appointment.
ME: What are some best practices doctors should use during a telehealth visit?
Brennan: One thing that we did hear loud and clear, it wasn’t technology … what people were really concerned about was the face-to-face interaction and missing out on that. Anything the doctor can do to re-create it or simulate what an in-person visit would be like would go a long way in putting the patient at ease. So things such as small talk and eye contact with the patient set the expectations of how that visit might go. Doctors also should explain how they will make a diagnosis and acknowledge some of the limitations of telehealth because patients aren’t right there with them. At the same time, assure patients that they can still get a quality diagnosis, that they will still have good quality of care through this telehealth experience.
ME: Why should doctors continue to use telehealth once the pandemic is over, even if many of them are more comfortable with in-person visits?
Brennan: I think everybody is probably more comfortable with in-person visits. But the opportunity to have telehealth continuing after this pandemic … there are a lot of convenience factors here, and it’s also opening up health care to people who might not be as likely to go to the doctor’s office. Maybe they’re very busy, they don’t have reliable transportation to get there, or maybe a doctor’s office is very far away, so it takes a lot of time. Continuing to offer telehealth as a robust alternative to the in-person visit would improve the opportunity for people to get health care that they might not otherwise be accessing.
ME: Telehealth usage rates have dropped from the initial highs in April — how can physicians encourage patients to keep using it when appropriate?
Brennan: I think it all comes down to bringing it up when they’re making the appointment, whether that’s on the phone or even if they’re booking the appointment online, offering that as an option. I think word of mouth is very persuasive, so as people slowly get more experience with it, and they tell their friends and family that, no, it actually wasn’t so bad and they had a good experience, I think that would go a long way in encouraging people to continue using it.
ME: Is there a certain patient demographic that prefers telehealth?
Brennan: We found in our study that people of all walks of life were using telehealth — all ages, all income levels, socioeconomic backgrounds. However, we did see that those who were seniors, or older folks, as well as those with lower incomes, we’re not using it quite at the same rate as others, which is interesting, especially for the seniors. They might be a particular group of people who would really benefit from telehealth not just during COVID-19 to reduce their risk of exposure, but longer term, in terms of mitigating some transportation concerns that they have, or especially if they have a lot of medical appointments.
ME: What does the long-term future of telehealth look like in the United States?
Brennan: Based on what we’re hearing, it certainly is not going to replace in-person visits. But I do think it will remain as a viable option in a lot of cases for a lot of people. At first, it will be for very specific conditions and situations. But I think telehealth is here to stay, and anything that will increase people’s access to health care is a win in my book.