Perspectives

Telemedicine in primary care

How to effectively utilize this tool


 

By now it is well known that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted primary care. Office visits and revenues have precipitously dropped as physicians and patients alike fear in-person visits may increase their risks of contracting the virus. However, telemedicine has emerged as a lifeline of sorts for many practices, enabling them to conduct visits and maintain contact with patients.

Dr. Mark Stephan, chief medical officer at Equality Health, a whole-health delivery system.

Dr. Mark Stephan

Telemedicine is likely to continue to serve as a tool for primary care providers to improve access to convenient, cost-effective, high-quality care after the pandemic. Another benefit of telemedicine is it can help maintain a portion of a practice’s revenue stream for physicians during uncertain times.

Indeed, the nation has seen recent progress toward telemedicine parity, which refers to the concept of reimbursing providers’ telehealth visits at the same rates as similar in-person visits.

A challenge to adopting telemedicine is that it calls for adjusting established workflows for in-person encounters. A practice cannot simply replicate in-person processes to work for telehealth. While both in-person and virtual visits require adherence to HIPAA, for example, how you actually protect patient privacy will call for different measures. Harking back to the early days of EMR implementation, one does not need to like the telemedicine platform or process, but come to terms with the fact that it is a tool that is here to stay to deliver patient care.

Following are a few tips for primary care practices to help mitigate disruption while embracing telemedicine.

Treat your practice like a laboratory

Adoption may vary between practices depending on many factors, including clinicians’ comfort with technology, clinical tolerance and triage rules for nontouch encounters, state regulations, and more. Every provider group should begin experimenting with telemedicine in specific ways that make sense for them.

One physician may practice telemedicine full-time while the rest abstain, or perhaps the practice prefers to offer telemedicine services during specific hours on specific days. Don’t be afraid to start slowly when you’re trying something new – but do get started with telehealth. It will increasingly be a mainstream medium and more patients will come to expect it.

Train the entire team

Many primary care practices do not enjoy the resources of an information technology team, so all team members essentially need to learn the new skill of telemedicine usage, in addition to assisting patients. That can’t happen without staff buy-in, so it is essential that everyone from the office manager to medical assistants have the training they need to make the technology work. Juggling schedules for telehealth and in-office, activating an account through email, starting and joining a telehealth meeting, and preparing a patient for a visit are just a handful of basic tasks your staff should be trained to do to contribute to the successful integration of telehealth.

Educate and encourage patients to use telehealth

While unfamiliarity with technology may represent a roadblock for some patients, others resist telemedicine simply because no one has explained to them why it’s so important and the benefits it can hold for them. Education and communication are critical, including the sometimes painstaking work of slowly walking patients through the process of performing important functions on the telemedicine app. By providing them with some friendly coaching, patients won’t feel lost or abandoned during what for some may be an unfamiliar and frustrating process.

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