Hospital Impact: 4 takeaways for navigating telehealth following ATA 2017

Telemedicine can improve care and reduce costs, but providers have to be ready and empowered to innovate.
Greg Briscoe headshot
Greg Briscoe

The American Telemedicine Association’s Telehealth 2.0 conference is an annual learning and networking event that brings together over 6,000 industry experts to discuss the latest trends and technology in the sector. This was not my first year as an attendee, but it was my first as an exhibitor.

My North Highland colleagues and I were able to have many conversations with both attendees and vendors. Over the course of three days, my interactions revealed several takeaways that are top of mind for various stakeholder groups, including providers, practitioners and telehealth newcomers.

It’s bigger than expected

With over 100 sessions and even more exhibitors, the ATA conference can be bewildering to a newcomer. Telehealth transformation is no different.

Most people are focused on the software and hardware, but we heard from the panels that telemedicine saves lives, money and time when it is implemented correctly. While technology is certainly the conduit for the practice of telemedicine, even the best devices or health IT systems won’t improve poor clinical communications or processes.

While studies have illustrated that these technologies can increase positive outcomes for health systems, the path to the best telehealth destination can be meandering and full of potholes. Health systems must first understand the strategy and objectives before rolling out telemedicine technologies to any given situation across local systems, regional systems or both.

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The best strategy is to implement a total solution for telemedicine and virtual healthcare instead of being quick to adopt the latest bright and shiny technology. While many tech providers are experts in their niche offering, a practice or facility looking to implement a new telehealth technology must fully evaluate clinical practice standards, protocols, guidelines and workflows to see the true benefits of telehealth.

Different patients, different needs

Consider a broader view of telehealth from a cost-benefit perspective. The impact of telemedicine can have far-reaching positive impacts on overall cost. To be successful, healthcare providers must design and implement virtual health solutions that meet the needs of the consumer.

For example, consider a patient’s access to care in a rural setting versus a patient in an urban setting. Rural systems are losing specialists who are attracted to larger medical centers and patient populations in major cities, and rural patients are following them. If rural health systems can recapture those patients utilizing telemedicine, it will be a win-win situation—The patient receives better care without the burden and expense of travel taking a toll on their health and their loved ones, and the care facility increases revenues and reputation.

One thing is clear about telemedicine: It takes industry expertise and expansive understanding of current issues to improve patient outcomes and reduce systemic costs.

Telemedicine is transformational, but the industry has not yet transformed

The U.S. telemedicine market is projected to soar past $30 billion by the end of 2020. The potential upside for healthcare organizations is huge. Better clinical experiences and health outcomes can come from improved access to specialists, more convenience, lower costs and better integrated health data—as long as patients are ready and willing to use virtual technology.

The biggest roadblock still left in our path is reimbursement. It seems everyone I speak with believes reimbursement reform will come, but uncertainty (not least of which is due to the new administration) results in delays to investments in the space.

Evolving trends in virtual health create difficult decisions

At the ATA conference, we witnessed a good deal of adaptation of existing devices and software. Video monitoring and cloud-based services, along with wearables, are on the rise.

We also noted vendor-partnering between EMR providers and telemedicine tech developers. Following this trend, we believe the larger vendors are forecasting significant doses of remote care and are poised to add more skin in the game.

Like in many other emerging industries, I expect there will be a rapid consolidation of services. The untamed landscape of suppliers of standalone devices, smartphone apps, wearables, virtual sitters and remote monitoring will likely undergo a series of mergers, acquisitions and company closures.

In the meantime, health systems need to continue to vet and manage an evolving patchwork of technology and service providers.

I spoke with some organizations who have set up governance organizations to provide an open forum for discussion across the system on the successes and failures of various telehealth initiatives. This collective knowledge can reduce costs through bargaining power and improve the likelihood of implementation success across those organizations.

In the end, the result we all seek is better patient outcomes via telemedicine and virtual health. To reach that goal and extract the most value from transformation requires a holistic strategy, in-depth customer experience knowledge, a clear understanding of the healthcare ecosystem and an organization that is ready and empowered to innovate.

Greg Briscoe is a virtual healthcare expert at North Highland, a consulting firm based in Atlanta. Greg has spent his entire career in the healthcare industry, performing roles in managed services, provider practice operations and health system program management. At North Highland, Greg oversees virtual health programs for medium-sized to Fortune 500 organizations, helping them with vendor evaluation and selection, new program implementation, ongoing program management and analysis, legislative initiatives and strategic visioning.