Telehealth has been critical to the safe management of the coronavirus pandemic, while also delivering uninterrupted care for patients with medical conditions. Its wide variety of technology offerings has allowed for new ways of providing healthcare, including:
- Real-time, audiovisual communication to connect physicians and patients in different locations.
- Image and data collection that can be transmitted and interpreted later.
- Remote patient monitoring tools such as blood pressure monitors and Bluetooth-enabled digital and wearable devices that can communicate biometric data for review.
- Virtual check-ins via patient portals, messaging technologies and more.
By leveraging these technologies, healthcare providers and patients alike have come to rely on telehealth to navigate the logistical and practical challenges posed by the pandemic, resulting in a massive surge in utilization. In fact, many hospitals went from conducting dozens of telehealth meetings per day to several hundred.
This rapid increase revealed that many hospitals and providers were not prepared for a jump in demand. Several did not have enough doctors on staff to meet quick turnaround times nor the robust information technology (IT) infrastructure required for virtual services.
Despite these growth needs, many in the industry believe there is a strong opportunity for telehealth solutions to serve patients, even beyond the pandemic. Recent actions at the federal level could accelerate this trend. For example, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) passed by Congress in March allows a high-deductible health plan with a health savings account to cover telehealth services prior to the patient reaching a deductible, according to American Telemedicine Association. In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced it would not impose penalties for noncompliance with the federal law restricting healthcare providers' release of medical information in connection with the "good faith provision" of telehealth during the pandemic. This exercise of discretion applies to telehealth provided for any reason.
Working Through the Challenges
For telehealth services to continue effectively, increased capacity for both clinical staffing and IT infrastructure will need to be addressed.
Over the past decade, IT infrastructures within healthcare environments have been under rising stress due to the use of internet protocol (IP) networks for distribution and access to systems such as electronic medical records, patient entertainment systems, physiological monitoring systems, security systems and many others. The broader use of telehealth systems will no doubt put additional pressure on such infrastructure.
Telehealth systems typically use video, audio and data streams, so bandwidth demands can be significantly higher than other healthcare systems. Also, these streams need to use both the internal and external service provider networks for connectivity to a patient’s private home. This might require upgrading the internal IP networks that carry the telehealth streams, as well as coordination with internet service providers (ISP) to make sure public networks can handle the additional traffic.
The physical and cybersecurity of IT infrastructure will also need to be evaluated to see that private patient medical data is protected and all Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) requirements are met. This would include IP networks and equipment, as well as electrical systems and mechanical systems that support the IT networking equipment.
Now more than ever it is important to evaluate the IT infrastructure because telehealth systems will soon begin to incorporate new technologies such as video analytics, artificial intelligence and more to aid in patient evaluations and documentation of health conditions. This demand on IT systems will continue to grow; therefore, early planning and evaluation is key to set budgets and keep patient satisfaction high.
For hospitals and healthcare systems that do not have a large array of telehealth services, assessing where to begin offering it or how to expand should be considered in a patient/provider-centric fashion.
Preparing for the Future of Telehealth
Telehealth holds the promise of significant changes within the healthcare industry. Even hospitals and healthcare systems that do not currently have a large array of telehealth services should assess where to begin as the patient/provider experience evolves.
With new telehealth offerings and programs coming to the forefront, more healthcare organizations are recognizing telehealth as an opportunity to attract and retain consumers. To do so, making every aspect of telehealth, from the initial appointment to follow-up care, secure and robust with effective IT infrastructure in place will be key for its continued adoption and expansion.
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