Telehealth for Hospitals
Medicine is a constantly evolving field, with technological advancements driving much of the industry’s current transformation. Telecommunications software and equipment is allowing hospitals and other medical practices to deliver an increasing amount of medical care virtually.
The practice of using telecommunications technology to provide clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health information, and healthcare administration remotely is known as telehealth.
All types of healthcare providers can utilize telehealth, but hospitals are uniquely positioned to benefit from the practice. Hospitals can implement all of the various forms of telehealth, including real-time patient interaction; store-and-forward communications; remote patient monitoring, and interactive patient engagement solutions, to help them improve quality of care, increase patients’ access to care, and streamline operations.
Benefits of Telehealth in Hospitals
Increasing the use of telehealth in hospitals has advantages for both the facilities and their patients, including:
Improve operational and workflow efficiencies
One of the key benefits for hospitals is how telehealth practices can be used to improve operational and workflow efficiencies. For example, hospitals can use interactive patient engagement systems, which utilize technology like in-room TVs, tablets, or other internet-connected devices, to automate or redirect non-clinical tasks that can take up valuable time for nurses and other staff. These tasks can include housekeeping requests, food and beverage services, noise level issues, and chaplain services. Patients can have their needs met more efficiently, and nursing staff have more time to focus on clinical and administrative tasks.
Other types of telehealth technology help hospitals improve workflows and efficiency as well. With live video conferencing, patients and healthcare providers do not need to be in the same physical location, saving doctors, nurses, and other staff time on travel, which allows them to see more patients. Specialists who serve multiple facilities do not need to waste time traveling between hospitals, but can connect with patients from anywhere.
Store-and-forward technology facilitates asynchronous communication, meaning doctors, nurses, and other staff can review photos, X-rays, and MRIs, and respond to patient questions whenever is most convenient for them, even if it is after regular business hours. Remote patient monitoring means doctors and nurses can check on patients who have chronic conditions or need follow-up care from any location, without needing to schedule more time-consuming in-person appointments.
Enhance patient education
Interactive patient engagement systems are also useful for patient education, particularly about medication and aftercare routines once patients are discharged from the hospital. Specially designed, interactive educational videos and other materials help empower patients and their caregivers to take on an active role in their aftercare, and assess patients’ understanding of the information through reviews and quizzes.
The short-term benefit of this type of patient education is that it gives nurses and staff more time for other clinical duties. In the long-term, it also benefits hospitals because patients who are more knowledgeable about how to care for themselves after discharge are less likely to be readmitted. Readmissions are extremely costly for hospitals and patients alike, both from a financial and health standpoint.
Organize patient information
Telehealth software also makes it easier for hospital staff to keep track of patients’ records, order prescriptions, schedule appointments, and manage billing. When implemented correctly, these streamlined workflows can not only improve efficiency and patient satisfaction, they can cut operational costs at a time when many hospitals are facing financial challenges.
Benefits extend to patients as well
Patients who are better educated about their conditions take on a more proactive role in their healthcare, and are less likely to experience issues after they are discharged. The use of telehealth has been shown to improve access to care for many patient populations, including people in rural areas. Video appointments and asynchronous consultations mean that patients do not need to spend the time and money traveling to the hospital for an in-person visit, and can help reduce stress and exposure to illness and infection for vulnerable populations.
Barriers to Telehealth in Hospitals
While the benefits of telehealth for hospitals are plentiful, there are still some obstacles the healthcare industry needs to overcome in order to fully integrate these practices.
One significant roadblock to widespread implementation of telehealth services in hospitals are the complex rules around physician licensing. Every practicing physician in the U.S. must have a medical license. However, medical licenses are issued by each individual state, and in most cases, physicians can only practice in the state in which they are licensed. These regulations apply to telemedicine, despite the fact that this practice would facilitate doctors treating out-of-state patients.
Further complicating matters is the fact that most states have separate sets of rules governing telemedicine. Forty-nine state medical boards, as well as the medical boards for Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands mandate that physicians must be licensed in the state in which the patient resides in order to provide telemedicine services to that patient. Additionally, twelve states require that physicians have a separate telemedicine license, in addition to their regular medical license.
The current system puts a costly, time-consuming burden on physicians and other healthcare providers who want to be able to practice telemedicine outside of their home state, and limits patient choice to physicians and providers who are licensed in the state in which they reside.
Another issue that needs to be addressed if hospitals and other providers want to expand telehealth services is coverage and reimbursement for this type of healthcare. Although many private health insurers and government health insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid have begun to provide some coverage for telehealth services, there are still many limitations and restrictions that compromise access to care for patients, and put a financial burden on hospitals and other facilities that provide these services.
While Medicare, Medicaid, and some private health insurers did expand coverage for telehealth services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as providing care via telehealth is seen as a precaution against the virus, it is unclear exactly how many of these changes will be permanent. Prior to the pandemic, Medicare and Medicaid, which provide health insurance coverage to roughly 109 million Americans, had a number of restrictions in place that limited the type of services that could be delivered virtually, and who had access to these services. According to the American Hospital Association, in order for telehealth to reach its full potential, Medicare and Medicaid should consider making some of these changes permanent.
One other barrier to growth and further implementation of telehealth services is limited patient access to necessary technology, especially broadband internet. The successful use of video conferencing and remote patient monitoring software is dependent upon reliable, high-speed internet access, which an estimated 19 million American households still do not have. Rural households, which are most likely to benefit from telehealth services, are also the ones most likely to not have broadband internet, compounding problems of access.
How Hospitals Can Implement & Improve Telehealth Solutions
Whether hospitals have already implemented telehealth solutions, or are just starting the process, there are a few key steps to ensure that they are investing their resources wisely, and setting themselves up for success.
First, hospitals should identify the specific need or needs they want to address through telehealth. This will guide what type of software, equipment, or system the hospital needs to research and implement. For example, if a hospital wants to be able to conduct more appointments virtually, they will need to invest in a video conferencing platform, and equipment like webcams and microphones. At this stage, hospital personnel should also identify the budget for telehealth solutions, the timeline for implementing them, and the desired outcomes for the initiative.
Once hospital personnel establish the need, budget, and timeline for implementing a telehealth solution, they can begin evaluating vendors and products. There are hundreds of telehealth companies specializing in software, equipment, apps, systems, and other telehealth solutions for a variety of different needs. The overwhelming number of options available is one reason why it’s important to have a clear understanding of what you need and how it will integrate with the technology you currently have. Taking the time to explore and review the relevant options to find the best one can save time, money, and stress later.
You will also need to design a workflow to determine what practices need to change in order to integrate this new technology. All staff involved should fully understand why the changes are being implemented, and what the best practices are for this new technology to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Also, staff must be trained on this new technology, to ensure that they are using it correctly and safely. If this is a telehealth solution that is meant to be used with patients, staff should also be trained in how to teach patients to use the device or software.
The last step in the implementation process is to evaluate whether the new technology is effective and meeting its intended goals, and make any necessary adjustments.