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Benefits of telehealth include convenience, flexibility

Telehealth services are beginning to catch on with payers and hospitals, as they provide patients with round-the-clock access to physicians at their convenience.

Early in August, the Department of Veterans Affairs became the latest federal entity to display the benefits of telehealth. During a press briefing at the White House, the VA showed how their new electronic appointments and records mobile app helps veterans gain access to healthcare services. This highlights the interest in using telehealth to address healthcare challenges like accessibility. As a result, more telehealth providers are entering the marketplace and targeting primary care providers, hospitals and payers. However, there are concerns around the impact telehealth may have on patient behaviors and outcomes.

With hospitals and providers under pressure to reduce their costs and find innovative ways to increase patient volume, telehealth offers opportunities to bring in patients while reducing the logistics of in-person visits. However, telehealth means different things to different entities, and hospitals, payers and independent medical practices all see different benefits of telehealth -- and potential concerns as well.

Payers offer telephone services that allow patients to dial a toll-free number to gain access to healthcare providers 24/7 to get clinical advice for common illnesses. While patients may not have used such services that often, it was an easy way for insurers to give patients immediate access to providers for routine health questions. Now insurers have taken a different approach that gives them a much better chance at helping their subscribers.

For example, United Healthcare provides their plan beneficiaries with 24/7 access to licensed doctors through the HealthiestYou mobile app. The service focuses on providing patients with a diagnosis, treatment and prescriptions for common illnesses, as well as recommendations for pharmacies and practices located near the patient.   

A possible challenge is that the providers available through the app may not have full access to a patient's medical records, and will not be as familiar with the patient's history and other relevant data that could be critical to their care.

Despite that disadvantage, payers still see this offering as a huge service and financial incentive since they can avoid paying copays for an in-person visit. Payers can also influence where patients should go by providing reviews and recommendations for suggested pharmacies.

On the other hand, hospitals have been rolling out their own telehealth initiatives to deliver care and access to their patients.

With many hospitals using different video chat apps, physicians and nurses can treat patients and access their medical records. This access to the full record results in better care when using the telehealth service since providers can now work with complex patients who would otherwise not be good candidates for telehealth services. 

Unfortunately, with reimbursements for these services not where providers would like them to be, and the potential infrastructure and change needed to get physicians to engage with patients this way, not all hospitals are willing to go down this path yet. Others see it as a great differentiator that helps attract new patients.

Primary care physicians have also been considering the benefits of telehealth in recent years, especially with the push for more patient engagement under MACRA and other pay for performance programs. Adding telehealth as another way to communicate electronically with patients offers better patient satisfaction and engagement. For primary care physicians, telehealth is another way to add concierge health to the services they advertise to patients. While it is different from traditional house calls where a physician has to visit the patient in person, this approach is less risky for practices while offering greater convenience and flexible scheduling.   

The benefits of telehealth are not limited to primary care; several specialists see it as a major value for patients who are in some areas that lack certain specialists. Patients with follow-ups with certain specialists can remotely connect with top physicians and avoid the need to travel. For small medical practices where physicians already spend a lot of time in the EHR, increasing patient volume without adding more doctors and addressing the current workload is unfathomable. Telehealth may be an area where they could eventually decide to outsource to external entities, similar to how some physicians' offices use an afterhours answering service to help their patients.

Telehealth is becoming popular and is in full swing more than ever before. Patients are starting to use telehealth since it provides the convenience of meeting a care provider from the comfort of the patient's home. However, there are concerns around patients using these services as a replacement for the physical examination needed for serious illnesses. These concerns are critical to note as they can affect the patient's health. Telehealth vendors must continue to educate patients on how and why they should use their services and when they should go to their doctor's office. 

Behind the scenes, vendors will now battle for patients' subscriptions to a mobile app and hospitals, payers and medical practices will take their battle to the digital arena for that valuable face time with patients. 

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