Industry Voices—Pandemic realities have accelerated the growth of promising new telehealth models

An elderly woman has a virtual visit with her doctor
Understanding how patients feel about telehealth and their preferences and potential objections is a critical prerequisite for medical professionals looking to expand their telehealth offerings, enhance the patient experience and continue to leverage this promising new healthcare model to provide outstanding care. (Jean-philippe WALLET/Getty Images)

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the pressures and prerogatives of a global pandemic can have a profound effect on lives and livelihoods everywhere.

In healthcare, where new technologies were already introducing new models and modalities of care, we are seeing some of those COVID-19-driven priorities play out in real time. The desire to deliver safe, socially distanced medical care and consultations to a large number of patients has dramatically accelerated the telehealth trend.

Even in a pre-pandemic world, telehealth was on the rise. Growing numbers of healthcare professionals and institutions were warming to the appealing efficiency and effectiveness of telemedicine appointments. But today, telemedicine has quickly taken on new prominence and prevalence, with both patients and providers embracing telehealth options as the new standard.

Even more intriguing is the fact that telehealth is proving to be more than just an emergent necessity: Data recently released by Escalent reveal 82% of patients who have already used telehealth expect to use it again in the future.

RELATED: Half of physicians now using telehealth as COVID-19 changes practice operations

The challenge for providers, however, is to convince patients who may still be skeptical or uncertain about telehealth services to give them a try in the first place. 

Understanding how patients feel about telehealth and their preferences and potential objections is a critical prerequisite for medical professionals looking to expand their telehealth offerings, enhance the patient experience and continue to leverage this promising new healthcare model to provide outstanding care.

A numbers game

Given the fact that 4 in 5 patients who have used telehealth have a positive view of their experiences, there is reason for optimism that continued adoption is a realistic goal. But those previous telehealth users represent just 36% of all patients. To better appreciate the challenges ahead, medical and tech professionals need to focus on the remaining two-thirds of patients who have not yet tried telehealth—and there, the sentiments are more mixed. That larger group is generally evenly divided between those who are open to trying telehealth in the future and those who have no desire to do so.

In essence, we have three groups, each roughly one-third of the patient population: experienced telehealth users, those open to the prospect of utilizing telehealth and those who remain skeptical and do not intend to use telehealth services.

The reluctant third

The 33% of all patients who are skeptical of telehealth most commonly say that their reluctance to use telehealth is rooted in a concern for the lack of face-to-face doctor-patient interaction. To this group, not being in the same room as their healthcare provider is a deal-breaker. Telehealth skeptics also report concerns about the quality of care they anticipate receiving and the potential for misdiagnoses.

RELATED: In rush to embrace telehealth, many physicians still have concerns about quality of care, survey finds

Few point to the technology itself as problematic, but it’s interesting to note that there are suggestive demographic differences between the three groups outlined above.

Survey respondents between the ages of 35 and 64 are about evenly split on their telehealth views. But younger respondents (between the ages of 18 and 34) make up a higher percentage of telehealth users versus non-users: 31% versus 23%. And older respondents (65-plus) show the opposite pattern, making up just 19% of users versus 27% of non-users. With that in mind, it’s not unreasonable to consider comfort and familiarity with newer technologies as a “hidden” factor impacting telehealth perceptions.

Flipping the switch

Given these concerns about telehealth, providers looking to maintain and grow their pool of telehealth patients need to consider what strategies will be most impactful for improving uptake. Although creating and maintaining the tech infrastructure is important, other initiatives regarding telehealth training and bolstering the digital engagement skills of medical professionals may go even further to improve the patient experience. Key takeaways and priorities include the following:

  • Bedside manner matters

Bedside manner is one of the oldest and most recognizably important elements of a positive patient experience. That doesn’t change just because doctor and patient are not in the same room. To some extent, awkward or uncomfortable moments can actually be more obvious in a telehealth setting than in person, and smart, thoughtful providers should be investing in helping their medical professionals enhance their “soft skills”—with special emphasis on strategies to connect and communicate effectively with patients in a virtual setting. Even those who have positive feelings about telehealth report missing the face-to-face doctor-patient engagement, adding to the urgency of upgrading digital bedside manner.

  • Communication should be a priority

One overlooked and underappreciated element of a strong telehealth program is how well a healthcare institution communicates with patients before their appointment. Clear and positive expectations translate directly to positive experiences, so make sure patients have all the information they need to utilize the technology and access their appointment. It’s also smart to be proactive about sharing telehealth benefits with both current and prospective users: Be specific about time savings and the added comfort and convenience of a doctor’s appointment right in their own home.

  • Training and support are critical

Don’t take telehealth training and support lightly. Make sure that it isn’t just medical professionals who are trained, but all support staff as well. The patient experience begins long before the doctor comes on-screen, and early hiccups or missteps can sour patient perceptions right off the bat. Clearly established appointment check-in and follow-up procedures can help make for a smooth and seamless patient experience—a priority for all forward-thinking healthcare institutions. A few awkward minutes or technical mistakes can ruin an otherwise positive appointment.

The future of telemedicine

Despite the tragic backdrop of a global pandemic, the silver lining of greater telehealth usage and popularity will have an impact on the healthcare sector for a very long time to come.

Healthcare institutions and professionals who want to continue to capitalize on this virtual momentum should seize this opportunity to gather detailed, timely and reliable data about patient preferences and priorities, and they should use that information to make smarter and more strategic investments in upgrading their telehealth services. Those investments will be paying dividends long after the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.

Caroline Brennan is a vice president in the health division at Escalent.