By Scott Sullivan
Telemedicine is revolutionizing the healthcare landscape.
Business Insider Intelligence released a report that defined 2018 as the “tipping point” for the telemedicine market; a JAMA study found virtual visits increased 261 percent between 2015 and 2017, with 7 million people estimated to have received remote services in 2018. Millennial and Generation Z patients are demanding virtual care, while healthcare networks find telemedicine helps them manage capacity and reduce costs.
So why is telemedicine becoming so mainstream in U.S. healthcare? Two top reasons are innovative mobile devices and real-time, high-speed data communications. The Internet of Things now includes wearable technology like smart sensors that monitor patient conditions. Healthcare delivery organizations of all sizes are using these tools to remotely provide acute, chronic and emergency care.
If your facility is considering launching a telemedicine program, some prepatory measures can help ensure success. You’ll want to make sure the virtual care solution will improve patient outcomes and increase operational efficiencies. Ideally, it will also drive cost savings. Finally, you’ll want to inspire an enthusiastic commitment from everyone in your organization.
Your first priority will be choosing a virtual care provider that understands healthcare workflows, virtual technologies, data security and HIPAA compliance. But you’ll also need to build the right foundation internally. Here are the five top considerations to get the results and value you’re looking for.
1. Define clear clinical objectives and roles.
Start by defining your clinical goals. Do your doctors need to diagnose and treat patients during acute episodic situations or for post-acute problems? Do you want to give patients tools to manage chronic conditions? Will specialists at academic medical centers provide remote post-operative follow-up care?
Also consider whether patients will be able to use the telemedicine system on their own or require an intermediary, like a nurse. Training can play a critical role in both the patient’s and staff’s comfort with equipment use. You’ll also want to think about the patient user experience, the physician’s duties during virtual visits, and any administrative requirements such as billing, coding and authorizations.
Outlining these needs will drive the scope of your hardware and software requirements, your staffing needs, and any training requirements. Together these factors will lay the groundwork for your preliminary budget.
2. Evaluate your network and communications infrastructure needs.
To communicate remotely with a patient or healthcare provider, a virtual care system may use video, voice and/or data — and sometimes all three, often in real time. These communications can be transmitted via Internet cable or DSL connection, or a cellular or satellite network. To optimize your network and communications infrastructure, involve your IT staff early in the procurement process.
If your virtual care network is cloud-based, consider interoperability and backup features. Also plan scenarios for emergencies and natural disasters. If your Internet and cellular networks are down, satellite may be your only option to keep communications open.
Something else that can be helpful at this stage is asking other healthcare organizations about their virtual care systems. Find out what has and hasn’t worked for them. You can also check industry analyst reports, trade association recommendations, and even user feedback on social media.
3. Make security and compliance a priority.
Security and HIPAA compliance are always critical in healthcare IT, but especially so with telemedicine. Work with your IT team to address these security parameters:
• Physical access. Controlling access to devices, data and storage is a vital but often challenging area in virtual care. Why? Because telemedicine equipment can be used across a range of locations and settings with many potential users.
• Devices. Because virtual care can involve personal mobile phones and medical devices outside the provider’s control, you’ll need to consider extra security measures for these vulnerabilities.
• Network. Both perimeter protections and robust inner network security are critical – both to stop attackers from entering the network and to detect them when they’re already inside.
• User access. Multifactor authentication, password policies and "bring your own device" (BYOD) policies will all play a role in virtual care programs. Your system’s identity authentication criteria need to protect your assets while providing a seamless user experience — an especially important consideration in emergency situations.
4. Commit to ongoing training and support.
Even the most intuitive virtual care system will require training. Make sure that your medical staff, caregivers, emergency response personnel and patients get the right instruction and onboarding so they can use the telemedicine solutions effectively. Providers need to learn how to provide clinical care using the software and equipment, while patients must understand how to navigate virtual consults on their devices. If some of your patients aren’t fluent in English, you’ll need a virtual care solution that can overcome linguistic barriers, as well as human interpreters who can work with clinical staff. Cultural awareness training can also help your team maximize care plan effectiveness.
Because telemedicine is always evolving, work with your solution provider to grow your virtual care offerings along with any new innovations. Also important: make sure your provider and your IT team are clear on how your hardware and software will receive regular security updates and patches to ward off emerging cyberthreats.
5. Develop a budget.
Now that you’ve established your organization’s clinical objectives and infrastructure needs, you can draft a preliminary budget.
Depending on funding and other factors, you may want to run a small pilot program as a proof of concept. This approach will help you evaluate your hardware and software in action before committing to a launch. Your clinical staff can give feedback and observe the value of real telemedicine results, which can help foster support across the team.
Another budget option is to explore leasing arrangements and managed services that minimize upfront expenditures. Leasing or even renting systems can shift your telemedicine investment from a capital expense to an operational expense, and minimize new staffing needs through managed services. Finally, explore government grants and other funding sources to see if they apply to your specific patient population or geographic region.
Creating a future of stronger care
Launching an effective virtual care program is ultimately a team effort. Follow the above recommendations and you’ll be well on your way to creating a program that works for every stakeholder: providers, patients, administrators and payers. By designing an efficient and sustainable telemedicine program, you’ll drive positive results right out of the gate — and set the stage for a future of stronger patient outcomes.
About the author: Scott Sullivan is chief revenue officer and SVP of Worldwide Sales for GlobalMed, an international provider of virtual care solutions. GlobalMed is honored to be the telehealth provider to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Defense Health Agency, and the White House. With over 15 million consults delivered in over 60 countries, its virtual care platform has the Authority to Operate (ATO) on U.S. Department of Defense networks with the highest level of security and supports a patient at any point in the continuum of care. Learn more at www.globalmed.com.