Telehealth is something that has been around for a lot longer than people think. Telehealth technology first began as a form of health care delivery in the 1960s, with NASA remotely monitoring the health of astronauts in space. However, the last couple of years have seen Telehealth completely revolutionize the way people interact with their health care professionals. Still, a few questions remain:
- What are the effects of Telehealth on the healthcare system?
- What are some pros and cons of Telehealth for health and wellness practitioners and their clients?
- Is Telehealth here to stay?
More and more healthcare providers are moving their practices online. So the question is, what’s next in the world of Telehealth for health and wellness professionals? Let’s take a deep dive.
What is Telehealth and Why Does it Matter to You?
Telehealth—sometimes referred to as Telemedicine—is technology that allows health care practitioners, from dietitians to doctors, the ability to provide care for their clients and patients without requiring an in-person visit.
Telehealth care includes several options:
- Live conversations over phone or video chat.
- Exchanging messages between practitioner and client using secure messaging, email, and secure file exchange.
- Remote monitoring devices that gather information and help practitioners monitor progress from afar. Fitbit and other smartwatches can track metrics in real-time (and if you have a Practice Better account, you can link directly to it).
What Does a Telehealth Appointment Look Like?
A Telehealth appointment can be divided into three components.
- Contact: The practitioner first reaches out to the client to confirm their contact information.
- Consultation: On the day of the appointment, the practitioner connects with the client on the chosen communication platform to go over their history and symptoms. If needed, pictures and videos are requested for further evaluation.
- Care: The practitioner reviews any health issues or concerns the client is experiencing, then decides on the next course of action. Protocols and individual health plans can be shared securely via the electronic health record.
Is Telehealth Cheaper?
Practitioners may benefit from lower overhead costs if they spend less time seeing clients in an office or clinic where they have to pay rent. Some professionals have regulations around when they should see a client or patient in-person and when Telehealth care is appropriate, so practitioners should check with their licensing body, board, or college, if they have one, for more information on their local regulations. On the other hand, offering Telehealth services can open up new possibilities for health and wellness professionals as they see more clients. Consulting remotely also creates an opportunity for more flexible appointment times (and saves travel time for everyone involved).
The Impact of Telehealth
Telehealth was growing in popularity before the appearance of COVID-19—many health coaches, dietitians, and nutritionists and other health and wellness professionals have been conducting phone and virtual visits for some time. As we know, the pandemic greatly increased Telehealth in the medical community as well. During an emergency declaration made on March 17, 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) stated the need for providers to use Telehealth to provide care for patients in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and other settings across the US and the world. Outside of the medical community, the convenience of Telehealth continued to play an integral role in practitioners’ day-to-day communications with clients in the health and wellness space.
Telehealth: Pros and Cons for Health and Wellness
Like any new technology, there are some distinct advantages to Telehealth. But there are also challenges and drawbacks to its current form. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of Telehealth.
What are the Advantages of Telehealth?
Telehealth can help treat a wide range of medical conditions. This is especially true when the client provides clear details about their health goals and seeks help from the right professional. Telehealth is most successful when the health practitioner is well-versed in leading their appointments over the phone or online.
Benefits for Clients
Lower costs: Telehealth can decrease the number of hours of care required, providing cost savings, or telehealth sessions can be included in a package. It can also reduce costs of secondary expenses for the client, like childcare and gas.
Preventive care: Health and wellness professionals are experts in preventive care, and Telehealth is a wonderful tool that can help. Telehealth allows health care practitioners to discuss and monitor a client’s symptoms to determine what action, if any, needs to be taken.
Allows flexibility: Clients can work with their practitioner of choice, regardless of where they are located (depending on the professional’s regulation). Health and wellness professionals who are licensed or otherwise regulated may have geographic restrictions on their practice, such as seeing clients within their own state or province, and should consult with their regulator or their legal counsel for advice.
Slowing the spread of infection: For immunocompromised clients/patients, going into a clinic may expose them to a wide range of germs and pathogens. Telehealth completely eliminates the risk of picking up an infection at that practitioner’s office, for example.
Convenience: People can access the type of care they choose from the comfort and privacy of their own home. Care from home reduces the pressure on those who need to take time off of work or arrange for childcare in order to go to their appointments.
Benefits for Health Care Providers
Less overhead: Practitioners who offer Telehealth may pay less for front desk support, and may not even need a separate office or clinic altogether. Some health and wellness professionals who do online coaching, for example, only need a space to work.
Client satisfaction with, and preference for, Telehealth visits: Studies show that patients may be happier with their doctor or nurse practitioner when they don’t have to travel to the office or wait for care in the office. The same can apply to any health professional: reducing waiting lists, travel time, and wait times can massively improve client satisfaction.
Additional revenue stream: Telehealth allows health care practitioners to provide care to more clients, even multiple clients at the same time (in group classes for example), which increases revenue. While some clients want 1:1 care only, other clients love group sessions or classes because they benefit from the camaraderie of other people working towards the same goals.
What are the Disadvantages of Telehealth?
On the other side of the coin, Telehealth is not a perfect fit for every person or situation; there are definitely some instances when in-person care is the better option. Here are some potential disadvantages to Telehealth.
An inability to examine clients: Telehealth doesn’t work as an option for some health and wellness practitioners whose business relies solely on being able to see someone in person, like massage therapists or acupuncturists.
Data security: Unless the proper cybersecurity measures are implemented, clients’ medical data could be accessed by hackers. It’s essential for providers to have the very best in data security, but this takes time, effort and money.
Technological concerns: Finding the right digital platform to use is time-consuming and can be difficult. Telehealth also requires strong internet connection, which isn’t readily available in many remote areas. Many of us have been on a frustrating video call when someone’s computer freezes, and that would not be ideal to happen in a health-related appointment.
Find out more about the advantages and disadvantages of Telehealth here.
Do Clients like Telehealth?
COVID-19 has changed the game, introducing many practitioners and their clients to Telehealth, with most having come to appreciate it for its convenience and speed. Many thoughtful health and wellness professionals are aware that using a computer can make them appear inattentive to their client because they are focusing on the screen and typing. Sometimes, the computer can appear to be a physical barrier to establishing a positive rapport with their clients. With Telehealth, even though the client isn’t physically in front of you, you can still establish a positive therapeutic relationship with them. For example, when surveyed about their medical appointments, some patients commented that during in-person visits, their doctor seemed distracted by a computer screen; this distraction isn’t an issue during video-based appointments.
Does Telehealth Work for Health and Wellness Practitioners?
A survey of roughly 1,600 health care providers finds that almost 70 percent are motivated to use more Telehealth because of the experiences they’ve had during the coronavirus pandemic—and more than half say their outlook has improved because of connected health.
Steve Ommen, medical director of the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Connected Care and one of the study’s investigators, says, “The strong support shown for Telehealth, as evidenced in these results, reinforces the knowledge that Telehealth is critical to how we deliver health care today.”
That’s why it’s more important than ever to expand the scope of practitioners to include more health and wellness professionals, to help lower the burden on health care resources—and it’s moving in the right direction. The Expanded Telehealth Access Act of 2021 permanently made physical therapy and other rehabilitation services available and billable under Medicare in the United States. Under the new law, the list of Telehealth practitioners will continue to be expanded to include occupational therapists and physical therapists.
Is it Possible to Get Great Results for Clients via Telehealth?
In a recent study by the American Medical Association, roughly 80 percent of doctors reported that Telehealth platforms improved the timeliness of care for their patients. In addition, 60 percent said Telehealth had improved their patients’ health. Telehealth may uniquely empower many types of healthcare practitioners to take their client care up another level.
Is Telehealth Secure?
With any digital communication comes the risk of hackers and system interference. The worry is real when it comes to theft of sensitive medical data, and a hacker’s ability to modify test results (which could lead to a wrong care plan).
As Telehealth becomes more prevalent, these risks must be dealt with. Encrypted third-party security systems are one way clinics and solo practitioners are assured that their clients will be safe when their follow-up sessions are via Telehealth.
Kelvin Coleman, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance, says, “We’re not too far from a future where people decide which health systems to go to depending on who protects their information the best.”
Telehealth and HIPAA Compliance
HIPAA-compliant Telehealth is a large concern for everyone in the health and wellness field as it can be complicated to understand and implement. Below are some well-known vendors that have HIPAA-compliant Telehealth video communication products, however some need a specific upgrade, such as a Business Associate Agreement (BAA) in order to be HIPAA compliant.
- Practice Better, which has its own Telehealth feature in addition to a Zoom integration
- Skype for Business / Microsoft Teams
- Zoom for Health care
- Google G Suite Hangouts Meet
How to Know if Your Telehealth Platform is Secure
This is an increasingly important consideration for any practitioners using Telehealth. Here are some steps you can take to improve your system’s security.
Check out cybersecurity insurance: It’s something that goes on top of your standard business insurance package and may help cover any potential repercussions associated with a data breach. Having an effective cybersecurity policy can also help prevent data breaches, because they provide protective software, training, and security support.
Look into VPN security: A Virtual Private Network connection encrypts your internet traffic and your identification online, making it harder for third parties to go in and steal information.
Ensure your mobile devices are encrypted: While mobile devices can be very convenient, they’re an easy ‘in’ for hackers. One solution that can reduce data leaks is using separate devices for practice and personal use.
Establish Telehealth guidelines: A recent IBM study showed that almost 95% of data breaches come from employee error. That includes the loss or theft of devices, accidental sharing of information with the wrong recipients, sending sensitive patient data in unencrypted formats, and ransomware attacks.
That’s why it’s important to establish and train team members, anyone who works at your clinic, or a virtual assistant on effective Telehealth practice guidelines. It might be a good idea to read up on policies regarding online care, data handling procedures, HIPAA compliance requirements, and personal health information protection strategies.
Make sure your software is reputable: The rise of Telehealth services has spawned numerous new software platforms, but many have yet to be properly tested. Be sure to stick to downloading applications from reputable sources and use only those that are approved and deemed safe.
Understand how platforms manage data: Ask questions about how your chosen platform collects, stores, and manages data so you can take more control over the information you share.
Protect against unauthorized access: Identity authentication systems are critical tools for online safety. For instance, multi-factor authentication can block up to 99.9% of all automated cyberattacks. Hackers often gain access by capturing or guessing passwords. This threat can be reduced via identity authentication and the use of strong passwords that are frequently changed to prevent password theft. Systems lock users out of their accounts after multiple failed attempts and limit user access to sensitive databases.
Remember lost or stolen devices are the leading cause of data breaches: Practitioners should take care to make sure all mobile devices, software, communication systems, and stored data are encrypted and that Telehealth security policies are followed by anyone who has access to your software.
How has Covid-19 Affected Telehealth?
The pandemic greatly accelerated the adoption of Telehealth. A McKinsey & Co. report estimated that physicians saw between 50 and 175 times more patients via Telehealth than they did prior to the pandemic. It has completely shifted the paradigm on how people access medical care, ushering in the new era of Telehealth. It can help you grow your health and wellness business, too.
What to Look for in a Telehealth Platform
COVID-19 has caused an explosion in telecommunication technology platforms. But due to its relative newness, many of these have not been adequately tested. So it all comes down to one thing—finding reputable platforms that have been tried and adopted by other reputable practices, including those that fit your style of practice.
Ready to give your new Telehealth platform a test drive? Here are some tips for prepping for your Telehealth sessions.
What is the Future of Telehealth?
Telehealth is definitely here to stay. However, to make sure it continues to improve, health programs need to address potential limitations so they can continue to deliver the best outcomes for patients/clients.
- Because technology varies among clients and health care providers, some will prefer in-person consultations to video.
- Some clients have concerns for privacy making them apprehensive about addressing sensitive topics over telecommunication. Ensuring confidentiality is key.
- Telehealth’s future requires health and wellness professionals to keep pushing for technologies that ensure confidential, HIPAA-protected communication, where applicable.
At the end of the day, Telehealth provides a myriad of advantages for health care practitioners and patients alike. However, ensuring its benefits outweigh the disadvantages requires health practitioners to continually monitor its usage and efficacy. That way, Telehealth can continue to improve lives by bringing quality care to more and more people.
To read about other top 2022 trends for health and wellness practitioners, click here.
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