With renewed emphasis on social distancing, it’s inevitable that both patients and healthcare providers have explored alternatives to traditional healthcare services.
Telehealth is one of the most exciting developments to come out of this exploration. As the name suggests, telehealth is a way of exchanging health-related information between a doctor and patient, assisted by a telephone and the internet. Via telehealth, patients can describe their symptoms through video chats, share data over online calls and messages, and receive diagnosis over the same. Likewise, doctors can also prescribe treatment based on their observations during each telehealth call.
Benefits Of Telehealth On Clinic Revenue
One of the major benefits of telehealth innovation is a direct increase in revenue. Part of this is achieved with the ease it provides potential and existing patients.
Telehealth drives down the cost of healthcare on both sides. From the patient’s end:
- Travel time and fare to and from the clinic
- Time lost scheduling/waiting for an appointment. (By April 2020, 46% of consumers had used telehealth to replace a cancelled healthcare visit, up from 11% in 2019).
- Opportunity cost of missing other engagements (e.g. taking leave at work). According to some sources, patients don’t mind paying marginally higher for telehealth services—because for them it’s still a saving over day’s wages lost during an in-person clinic appointment.
These expenses are replaced with the negligible investment associated with an appointment online.
For the healthcare provider, there is a noticeable reduction in costs associated with facility management, including utilities, overheads and staffing. There is also much more flexibility in managing patient visits, with less resources needed to update patient history, account for missing or cancelled appointments etc.
Telehealth innovations also translate into wider coverage for healthcare providers, thereby reducing the financial uncertainty caused by contingencies like COVID-19.
Telehealth innovations and retail healthcare visits have delivered value in other ways too:
- Limiting the incidence of no-shows: The Medical Group Management Association has recorded patient no-show rates that have gone as high as 50% at one point. Even the best-run practices experience up to 12% no-shows per day. Healthcare providers lose revenue when patients sign up for an appointment but fail to show up. Some providers choose to impose a penalty, or ‘no show fee,’ but this is not a sustainable solution. Telehealth innovations address this source of revenue loss by giving live visibility into the calendar. If there is a no-show, another patient can easily be accommodated from the waiting list. Research supports this: Studies show that telehealth and retail health visits have lower patient absenteeism.
- Scientific Scheduling: Telehealth innovations allow patients and healthcare providers much more autonomy over the scheduling process. Appointments can be made online or on the phone. Aided by the right software, appointments are instantly updated, and synchronized across all relevant systems. Telehealth innovation is important this way: It saves revenue that would otherwise be lost in rescheduling patients or assigning them appointments too far ahead in the future. Conversely, clinics with poor front office facilities would be forced to accommodate patients even before completing VoB. Worst case scenario: Overbooked calendars and stacked physician schedules. With flexible hours, providers can expand or contract their workday (and their revenues).
- Scaling Healthcare Services: Telehealth innovation has been shown to reduce the risk of long-term hospitalization for patients. How does this impact clinic revenues? Healthcare providers can manage fixed resources much more efficiently and with much less uncertainty. For instance—staffing decisions, the need for specialized equipment, unoccupied beds etc are all considerations (and costs) that providers can plan much more effectively, thanks to telehealth innovations. According to a McKinsey report, “approximately 20% of all emergency room visits could potentially be avoided via virtual urgent care offerings, 24% of healthcare office visits and outpatient volume could be delivered virtually, and an additional 9% “near-virtually”…Up to 35% of regular home health attendant services could be virtualized, and 2% of all outpatient volume could be shifted to the home setting, with tech-enabled medication administration.”
- Improving Preventive Techniques: As COVID-19 has proven, healthcare resources can sometimes be stretched beyond measure. The unavailability of drugs, equipment and even medical expertise can tax the healthcare system as a whole, and force healthcare providers to make altruistic short-term decisions that may hurt their clinic’s performance in the long-term. Ironically, the outbreaks that tax healthcare services most severely are the same ones that can be easily prevented by imparting patient education. By raising awareness levels within patients, healthcare practitioners also show patients how to think about their own and their family’s health, make relevant mental checklists of symptoms between clinic visits and more. In other words, when these patients make in-person visits to the clinic, they save diagnostic time. Thus, telehealth innovations offer a budget-friendly, powerful medium that can deliver information on preventive techniques to a wide audience—simultaneously, and cost-effectively. Preventive techniques lock in clinic revenue by ensuring there are no unforeseen outlays, and that collections mirror medical services disbursed by the practice.
- Enhanced Outreach: Demography can sometimes limit the healthcare providers’ outreach: Pediatricians in a region with a growing retiree community, for instance. In a traditional clinic arrangement, such a healthcare provider would have to make do. But thanks to telehealth innovations, he/she can expand outreach without a corresponding investment in marketing/promotional activities.
- Reduced Marketing Expenses: Promotional activities are direct, instantly measured and cost a fraction of what they would had the healthcare provider not opted for telehealth innovation.
- New Revenue Models: The concierge medication approach describes a scenario where some patients are ready to pay a monthly installment on their credit cards to avail ‘priority healthcare services’, i.e. with quicker delivery through telehealth innovations. Augmented with a strong referral program, this could extrapolate the influence of telehealth manifold in a short period of time!
Telehealth Innovation: Exciting Developments
The initial years of telehealth innovations and telehealth adoption were slow. Enter the COVID-19 pandemic, and suddenly what was seen as a ‘good to have’ became a healthcare industry mainstay.
In a very short time, we have seen telehealth innovations absorb ideas from other industries to create exciting new possibilities within healthcare. These include:
- Moving past live video sessions to deliver online patient diagnosis and checkups
- Enabling healthcare access for individuals with disabilities. Telehealth innovation is especially important in responding to complex medical needs.
- Consulting for chronic disease and infections
- Telehealth innovations that offer enhanced monitoring capabilities, particularly with regard to remote patients or patients who have difficulty visiting the clinic in person.
Important Considerations Before Adapting Telehealth Innovation
The Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) reports that telehealth innovation is a high-performing actor in the domestic healthcare system. According to one report, the telehealth industry may grow upwards of $250 billion in revenue post COVID-19.
While telehealth will be the future of healthcare, as evidenced in the onset of the COVID-19 era, telehealth innovations must focus on decreasing existing social and health disparities between different socio-economic groups.
Telehealth is good news for Americans with physical disabilities, who were already struggling with limited accessibility. However, studies suggest that individuals with disabilities are 20% less likely than individuals without disabilities to possess a PC, cell phone or tablet—the tools through which telehealth innovation is conveyed and telehealth data is recorded. So this is an area policymakers need to look into.
While many factors are continually making telehealth innovations important, detractors have an important point. Telehealth innovation may be contributing to an increasing propensity towards isolation, and its resulting mental health issues.
Achieving The Perfect Balance Between Telehealth Innovations And Human Connection
The industry tends to emphasize mobility limitations for patients. But the same may also be true for healthcare providers.
COVID-19 has demonstrated the health risks frontline health workers experience —lack of PPEs, high exposure to infected patients, stressful, demanding schedules that don’t allow for much rest and recuperation. A dearth of adequate healthcare talent also means that doctors are in high demand. Or, in other words, that the system cannot tolerate the shortage of doctors. In this scenario, telehealth offers a ‘win-win’. By using a telehealth solution, healthcare providers can shield themselves from undue exposure to infection, recapture energy in a relaxed, comfortable setting, and treat more patients per day.
Instead of seeing telehealth innovation as a competing service, healthcare providers must treat it as an add-on, or supplement to existing clinic services.