Navigating the buzzwords of telehealth

October 29, 2016

It’s easy to get lost in the ever-evolving landscape of the telehealth marketplace.

Editor's Note: Welcome to Medical Economics' blog section which features contributions from members of the medical community. These blogs are an opportunity for bloggers to engage with readers about a topic that is top of mind, whether it is practice management, experiences with patients, the industry, medicine in general, or healthcare reform. The series continues with this blog by Jake DiBattista, a territory manager at SimpleVisit, a video service provider for physicians. The views expressed in these blogs are those of their respective contributors and do not represent the views of Medical Economics or UBM Medica.

 

Jake DiBattistaIt’s easy to get lost in the ever-evolving landscape of the telehealth marketplace.

With tons of vendors offering this that and the other, it can be overwhelming for providers who are new to telehealth. Often, technical jargon gets thrown around when it comes to telehealth, leaving providers in a haze.

 

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Understanding what these phrases mean and diving deeper into what a telehealth vendor is actually offering is critical when trying to differentiate one platform from another. So, without further ado, here is a breakdown of some of the terms most commonly used in the telehealth marketplace.

Interoperability

Interoperability at its core is the ability for software to “play nicely" from one device to another.

When purchasing a telemedicine solution that is going to be accessed by patients, it is important to remember the broad range of devices and platforms now on the market. Being able to work across a variety of platforms and operating systems is a key to making a solution interoperable.

 

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A question to ask regarding a product that claims to be interoperable might be: Does this work on mobile, or would web browsers need a plugin to run (meaning the patient must install something)? In a world of PCs, smartphones, tablets and even watches, it is important to understand what you and your patients will need when accessing your new telemedicine solution.

Low Bandwidth Functionality

A lot of solutions will claim to operate in “low bandwidth markets” but what does this really mean? In short, a patient or provider who is functioning in a low bandwidth market works even when the internet connection is slow.

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Synchronous video requires a lot of bandwidth to run, meaning that slower connections don’t often have the capability to run it as smoothly. When a video solution company claims its product functions in low bandwidth, it is claiming the solution will run despite this limitation. A provider should consider that patients may not always be located in areas with particularly good coverage and choose a solution that accounts for this.

 

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Some video solutions naturally adapt to low bandwidth by cutting video and allowing audio to continue until they can reestablish a video connection. Others will allow for large lag spikes where the video and audio connection completely freeze.

I personally recommend testing in a less-than-perfect environment, if possible, so that you can understand what happens when the connection is less than optimal.

Integration

One of the hottest topics in healthcare right now is offering integrated solutions. This involves keeping all services and applications under one roof so that information and workflow become less scattered.

 

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Some key points of integration for telemedicine are scheduling, recording information into EHRs and payment. Understanding how telemedicine solutions would integrate or work with your current products is extremely important, as poor integration will lead to lost time and a restructured workflow that might not be possible.

Reimbursable

Reimbursement is driving telehealth adoption. However, not all virtual services are reimbursed the same and vary by state.

For example, in some states known as “parity states,” it is at the discretion of the provider to offer virtual services equivalent to those they would provide in person for reimbursement by private insurance. When it comes to technology, a synchronous video connection will often be required over having the patient view a recording.

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Some states and insurance carriers may have additional restrictions to reimbursement, like the requirement of a previous visit that occurred in person or that the patient is located in an underserved location. Reimbursement can be a confusing area to navigate, but a good telehealth vendor will know the state laws and be able to explain how to foster reimbursable visits for providers.

HIPAA Compliant

It is important to note that all video solutions may not be HIPAA compliant. In order for a video solution to meet this standard, it must have an encrypted end-to-end solution.

 

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Depending on whether the telehealth solution is recording or handling patient protected information, you will call the need for a business associate’s agreement. Making sure you have a secure video connection that does not put your practice in jeopardy should be a priority.

Tele-Blank

The terms telestroke, telepsych, telemedicine, tele-pediatrics and everything in between often adds to the confusion of virtual visits.

I often hear from interested clients, “I don’t think we need telemedicine in primary care, we already have tele-stroke here,” to which I reply, “Different specialties have different needs.”

It is rare to find a solution with the capabilities to handle emergency care as well as provide a patient-facing solution for acute care. Know your practice’s needs and choose the solution that fits for you.

Whether a vendor calls its service telehealth, telemedicine or even virtual care is largely inconsequential; what truly matters is how the product will fill its needs. Telemedicine and telehealth are large categories of care delivery that should be broken down to solve the unique needs of your providers and patients. So the next time you hear tele-blank, think broad category instead of one size fits all.

Navigating the vast world of telehealth solutions can be stressful and overwhelming at times. With the help of this article I hope that you can find solace in knowing the basics of what may differentiate one solution from another, and avoid getting tripped up on the buzzwords of telehealth.