In the wake of COVID-19, telehealth has taken center stage. Yet, many healthcare organizations are struggling to understand and adjust to its impact on the patient experience. All too often, this part of the patient journey gets short shrift in telehealth strategies as all the focus goes to implementing the technology and getting patients successfully into their virtual visits. As we all know, when it comes to patient engagement that is far from the end of the story.
Now is the time to elevate telehealth to its rightful place in the continuum of care, not as an over-glorified triage tool to be used during a crisis but as a valuable way to improve continuity of care for patients, manage population health, enhance provider efficiency, and attract and retain patients who want or need a convenient, easy experience without traveling to a healthcare facility. However, it's not a matter of "turning on" telehealth and then enjoying the benefits. To optimize the outcomes for everyone, health systems should adapt their patient experience strategy to deliver a frictionless telehealth journey that delivers the following benefits:
In the age of the consumer, patients crave easier and more convenient ways to access healthcare. Yet, many were slow to adopt telehealth and experience the convenience of a virtual visit until the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that health systems are reopening, patients won't all revert back to in-person visits even if it's safe to do so. Why? Because telehealth allows patients to bypass travel and waiting room experiences, which are a major source of frustration and negative feedback for providers.
Patients now realize they can easily receive a prescription for an antibiotic or a consult for a sick child from the comfort and safety of their own homes. With telehealth, patients don't experience the frustration of getting stuck in traffic on the way to the doctor, long wait times before the exam, or missing half a day of work for an appointment that's over in the blink of an eye. In a recent telehealth study of radiation oncology patients by Townsville Cancer Centre, most patients preferred virtual visits for future consultations, about one-third desired a mix of telehealth and in-person visits, and only one patient preferred in-person visits only.
Telehealth appointments are also typically more efficient than in-person visits, which also leads to a more positive patient experience. In a study by Massachusetts General Hospital, clinicians said telehealth was instrumental in offering convenient and timely follow-up visits and enhancing connections with patients. Seventy percent said the technology helped them see patients in a timely manner, while 50 percent said telehealth was efficient.
Accessible and Affordable Care
Prior to COVID-19, the benefits of telehealth were primarily promoted as a way to reach patients in rural and underserved areas by allowing them to receive care in their own communities instead of traveling long distances to treat both acute and chronic illnesses. For patients in rural areas, telehealth doesn't just offer convenience but actual access to care that patients wouldn't otherwise experience. According to the National Rural Health Association, in rural areas the ratio of primary care physicians is less than 40 doctors for every 100,000 people—compared to 53.3 physicians per 100,000 people in urban areas.
Telehealth remains a vital venue of care for rural and underserved populations, but during COVID-19, it also expanded access to care for all patients who can now seek out telehealth visits with a wider choice of providers, not just those located nearest to them.Patients seeking treatment via telehealth also encounter fewer barriers to care, which in turn leads to better outcomes and higher patient satisfaction. In the same Massachusetts General Hospital study, 79% of patients said it was easier to schedule an appointment for a virtual follow-up visit than for a clinic visit, and 66% said they had strong personal connections to their telehealth provider. Patients perceived significant added convenience, saved travel time, and expressed willingness to pay co-payments for virtual visits.
Beyond primary care, telehealth also increases access to specialists who may be even further out of range for patients in rural areas, small cities, and even suburbs. And when coupled with low-tech approaches such as remote patient monitoring, telehealth is even more accessible for disadvantaged populations. By improving access to lower-cost primary and specialty care, telehealth can help reduce expensive emergency room (ER) visits and avoid the need for more complex and expensive treatment.
When it comes to quality of care, patients expect their telehealth appointments to be on par with in-person visits. According to the Massachusetts General Hospital study, during a telehealth visit 95 percent of the time spent by the patient is face-to-face with the doctor, compared to less than 20 percent of a traditional visit, in which most of the time is spent traveling and waiting. As this study indicates, telehealth provides more focused one-on-one conversation between patient and provider, and it eliminates all the distractions that come with a busy medical office environment. With fewer distractions, patients and providers can spend more time focusing on the concern at hand, crafting a comprehensive treatment plan, and using their time to discuss medication management or review test results.
When comparing virtual visits and office visits, Massachusetts General Hospital also found that many patients and clinicians reported no difference in "the overall quality of the visit." Additionally, the health system found that:
- 62% said the quality of care via telehealth was the equal to an in-person visit
- 21% said the quality of care via telehealth was better than an in-person visit
- 68% rated their visit a nine or a 10 on a 10-point satisfaction scale
Offering telehealth services to support virtual visits can improve your patient experience, but it's more than just deploying new technology. The actual virtual visit is only one touchpoint in the patient experience. To learn how to create a frictionless, end-to-end telehealth experience, download our Executive Guide to Building a Positive Patient Experience for Telehealth Programs below: