With COVID-19, there has been a dramatic increase in the uptake of Telehealth technology across many different health disciplines worldwide. But as we start to emerge from the pandemic, health professionals are beginning to wonder what the new normal might look like and what changes they need to be making in their own practices to make sure that they’re ready to offer their clients the services they need in a post-pandemic world.
We asked Damien Adler, a director of Power Diary (a leading practice management software), and private practice owner himself, what his thoughts are on Telehealth for healthcare practices going forward.
What is Telehealth?
This is a great place to start. With the explosion of Telehealth technology options on the market, it’s important to check that we’re all on the same page. So, what is Telehealth? To put it simply, Telehealth is any health service which is delivered remotely. But the simplicity of the definition doesn’t hint at the many different applications that exist for healthcare practitioners, from doctors and specialists to allied health professionals such as psychologists and physiotherapists.
The shift in how we help clients has exciting opportunities for many of us in private practice, and I believe that we’re only scratching the surface. I’m certain that in the next few years, as the use of Telehealth technology becomes more widespread, we’re going to see a corresponding boost in health outcomes.
Why is Telehealth a good idea going forward?
It’s no secret that healthcare has at times lagged behind other industries in the uptake of communication technology. Where worldwide there has been an increasing trend towards flexible working hours and work-from-home opportunities, the healthcare industry has been noticeably slow to take advantage of an increasingly technical, connected world.
Some of the initial reticence understandably stems from a fear of losing the practitioner-patient connection. In a world that seems worryingly disengaged on a personal level, the importance of the relationship between caregiver and client has remained a priority.
But we need to move with the times and realise that in many cases, Telehealth is the best option given the clients’ situation. For example, it creates service opportunities for patients in remote areas, teens that don’t like coming to a clinic, those with mobility issues, and those who are time-poor and find it more efficient to have a Telehealth appointment without the need to drive to an appointment. Clients are increasingly engaged in their own healthcare journey and, with the advent of technology, can now be equipped to co-manage their conditions in consultation with their healthcare practitioners.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that we need to be prepared to adapt and switch our modes of operation should the need arise, and Telehealth gives everyone more options.
In short, the top reasons to offer Telehealth are:
Telehealth can give clients better access to care.
Travel, time and childcare costs (in both money and time) mount up quickly and may mean that a client skips a follow-up appointment. Telehealth can, therefore, reduce no-shows for clients who would usually need to travel far for their appointment, as well as ensuring that clients get access to the care they need.
Telehealth can enhance the practitioner-patient connection.
This might go against what many believe about Telehealth (especially those that aren’t offering online health services yet), but communication technology is improving the practitioner-client relationship because, with communication technology, your client now has better access to your services. Whilst the goal is not to replace in-person visits, Telehealth can be invaluable in many circumstances such as quick check-ins, client or family education and follow-up visits.
Achieve improved outcomes due to higher client engagement.
Ultimately, you want your clients to care about their health at least as much as you do, preferably more. It has been shown that if you can get clients to engage with their healthcare journey, the outcomes are significantly better. By nature, Telehealth encourages ownership and engagement as it provides the tools and training for the client, so they take more responsibility for their results (for example, see this practitioner’s experience here). Access to service is easier and clients can sometimes feel more comfortable in their own environment with less barriers getting in the way of their treatment.
Healthcare practices can see more clients.
If we’re going to look at it from a financial perspective, Telehealth makes perfect sense. You can see more clients during working hours as quieter slots (such as mid-morning and mid-afternoon) become easier to fill. Additionally, last minute cancellations can often be filled with a telehealth appointment as client’s can often ‘attend’ these with little notice.
Telehealth offers an alternative when in-person appointments aren’t possible or advisable.
While this has definitely been true for the current crisis, it extends far beyond this single example. Consider the ageing client who is house-bound due to physical limitations, or the immune-compromised patient who has to self-isolate to avoid catching a disease. Telehealth appointments mean that they can get the care they need, without increasing their risks.
How can you give Telehealth services the best chance of succeeding in your practice?
From the feedback that we’ve had from clients using Power Diary’s Telehealth offering, the common concerns and learnings relate to either an aversion to technology (both from staff and clients) or the client-practitioner connection. In order for Telehealth to form an important part of your practice offering going forward, health practitioners must focus on offering a professional, comfortable session. By going out of your way to ensure your client is satisfied with their online experience, they’re more likely to see it as equivalent to an in-person appointment, and they will also recommend your services to others. First impressions count, so making both the technical experience straight-forward and the therapy component positive can go a long way.
The technical side of Telehealth
There are many Telehealth options on the market which can make it confusing if you’re trying to pick one without knowing what feature set you will need. The ideal scenario is to use practice management software with Telehealth built into the feature set, so that it is compatible with your appointment booking and invoicing processes. When selecting your Telehealth technology, check whether it:
- Fulfils government requirements for security and privacy
- Integrates with your current software
- Is affordable (or included with your software for free)
- Is easy to navigate and use (both for the practitioner and the client)
- Doesn’t require the installation of additional software
The therapy side of Telehealth
There are a few things you can do to ensure that you connect with your client during the session. This starts before the appointment begins:
- Let them know what to expect before the session
- Send them instructions on how to connect for their appointment
- Offer a free trial call to check that they can connect successfully.
- Make yourself available to address any concerns they might have
- Treat the session the same as you would if it was happening in your office – check that they’re comfortable, and ask them about their day before starting
- Mimic “eye contact” by looking into the camera when you connect over video
- Dress professionally – at least for the part that can be seen on camera 🙂
- Be on the lookout for non-verbal cues just as you would in a face-to-face appointment
- Schedule the next appointment at the end of the session while the experience is still fresh in their mind
- Follow-up and ask for feedback on the session
What can you do to grow the Telehealth portion of your practice?
If you’ve decided to make Telehealth an integral offering for your practice, congratulations! You’re already ahead of the curve. It’s a great way to differentiate your practice, but the trick is to let everyone know about it.
Some options for communicating your online services include:
- Your referrers, make sure the people that refer clients to you know about your expanded service offering.
- Your website, update your website to reflect your Telehealth services, and then check that your Facebook page is also up to date. (And don’t forget to make the updates easy to share.)
- Your mailing list, if you’ve built up a database of current and past clients, why not send out an email explaining how Telehealth works and what you offer. Past clients may have stopped coming to you because they have moved out of the area but would jump at the opportunity for an online appointment. And current clients might be very interested in an appointment that could be done from the comfort of their own home. Also, include a gentle nudge to encourage them to forward the mail on to anyone they know who might benefit from your services.
- Your team, both your reception staff and healthcare employees, need training on how and what to communicate about Telehealth appointments. Reception staff should mention them to everyone who comes in for an appointment, and your healthcare staff can explain how an appointment works if they choose to do it online.
- Your communications with clients, appointment reminders, your answering machine message and all other points of interaction with clients can include information on your new offering.
- Your waiting room, print flyers, and stick up notices to let your clients know which treatments and services are available via Telehealth.
- Your marketing efforts, if you’re putting resources into any kind of marketing, whether online, print or anywhere else, you need to update your messaging to showcase your additional services.
Anything else to keep in mind?
Yes! This might even be the most important point: always to ask for feedback and use it to improve the experience. Remember that Telehealth is new for everyone, so you might not get it right the first, second or even third time. But that isn’t a reason to give up. The world has changed, and Telehealth is here for the long-haul. More and more people are seeking Telehealth options and, as online health services become more widely accepted, it will increasingly become an expected offering across most healthcare disciplines. Ultimately a Telehealth offering makes your practice more agile and better able to respond to the changing needs of clients, as well as differentiating you from other practices.