Caregivers often are an overlooked group when it comes to supporting telehealth programs, according to a telehealth pilot study at Nashville, Tenn.-based Saint Thomas Health recently profiled in Becker's Hospital Review. Such technology is a big hit both for them and their patients because it saves on travel time and hassle, according to Jason Dinger, CEO of MissionPoint Health Partners, the accountable care organization at Saint Thomas Health.
"When [patients] have to spend hours driving in [for an appointment], someone else is with them having to make that same commitment," Dinger tells Becker's. "Patients were incredibly grateful, not only for making their life easier, but also their caregivers' lives easier."
According to Becker's, when it comes to implementing telehealth at a hospital, providers must be sure to:
- Test telehealth on existing patients with regular needs: The technology worked best with patients who had established relationships with their physicians, especially those who had frequent, regular in-office visits or check-ups, St. Thomas officials tell Becker's. The idea: Inserting a tele-visit for a cardiac patient who meets with his physician weekly is seen as relieving the travel/time burden, while still keeping the patient and physician in contact.
- Enlarge image size when possible: Patients responded best to physicians whose face/image were close to life-size, Dinger tells Becker's. "We've found that if we reduce the scale of someone, the patients think they are talking more to a computer than to a physician," he says. In the same vein, it's important to have high-definition video and high quality audio to make the interaction seem as natural as possible, and reduce the computer-feel of the visit.
- Make images, sounds, other functions available to patients: Patients in the pilot were excited at the ability to see what the physician sees, or hear what the physician hears, as part of their education. For example, the physician can playback a cardiac patients' heart sounds, and point out an anomaly. "The doctor is able to say, 'Do you hear this swoosh sound at the end? That's what I'm worried about,'" Dinger says. "It allows patients to participate in their care in an entirely new way."
The technology helped to engage and excite patients so much that their adherence to medication improved and important lifestyle changes were made faster during the pilot, according to preliminary data from the study. It's an important discovery, given the difficulty most healthcare providers have with motivating chronic disease patients to improve their habits.
Telehealth actually has become so popular, the health system is expanding it beyond its own patients. St. Thomas just established a tele-conference system with local high schools, offering teaching to students and community groups on health topics, disease prevention, and more. Hospital officials say they plan to expand the program significantly, particularly in rural areas of the state.
To learn more:
- read the Becker's article
- read the St. Thomas release about its school teleconferencing program