As healthcare workers on the front lines put themselves at risk each day, more hospitals and healthcare systems are turning to telehealth services to keep workers safe.
In many cases, telehealth technology can keep patients out of hospitals, urgent care facilities, and doctors’ offices by providing timely diagnoses and access to medical care. This limits the spread of a contagious disease like COVID-19 by keeping patients safe at home.
However, implementing telehealth services comes with challenges. Potential limitations include the inability to perform a proper physical exam and a lack of patient comfort with the technology. However, during a pandemic, offering telehealth services lets you provide necessary healthcare and keep everyone safe. It even enables quarantined staff to continue working in a remote capacity and reduce the risk of spreading the illness.
In this post, we’ll share 10 telehealth best practices to help you make the most of the technology and efficiently care for your patients on a remote basis.
1. Set strategic goals
Before you implement or expand telehealth services within your organization, take the time to set appropriate goals. Realistic and measurable goals will help when determining staffing needs, evaluating performance, estimating costs, and picking the right equipment. Start small to improve the chances of success.
For example, say the ultimate goal of your telehealth program is to provide rural patients with access to care. A realistic goal might be to have at least 50 percent of your rural-based patients sign up for the telehealth service. If you know that the majority of rural patients in your practice are over the age of 60, it would make sense to make telehealth services available via a phone call instead of a smartphone-accessible patient portal.
Assessing your goals before implementing your plan will ensure you allocate resources correctly.
2. Create an implementation team
An internal team dedicated to implementing telemedicine services can help you keep costs down and smoothly roll out the new service. Using a third-party team instead of an internal one can result in time-consuming meetings and miscommunication. Keep in mind that the entire organization should be involved to get everyone’s input and assistance. Don’t just use IT staff; include your physicians and clinical staff as well.
For example, one of the first things you’ll need to set up is telehealth video conferencing software. This software needs to be fully HIPAA compliant and easy for your doctors, staff, and patients to use.
3. Search and apply for grants
It can be expensive to implement telemedicine services, and reimbursements often won’t fund the upgrades. However, there are technology grants that can help offset the cost. You can find tech grants designed to improve the quality of life for rural citizens through organizations like the U.S. Department of Agriculture or state rural health associations.
Take the time to look for grants available in your area and apply for any that your practice qualifies for. If you don’t feel confident in your writing skills, it may be worth working with a writer who specializes in grant applications to improve your chances of being awarded the funds.
4. Follow the CDC framework
When in doubt, stick to the guidelines set forth by the CDC in their Non-COVID-19 Care Framework. This framework gives healthcare systems key considerations and examples of how to triage and respond to both critical and noncritical care to keep everyone safe.
For instance, you’ll need to provide different levels of care and support for someone who is complaining of chest pains vs someone who needs a routine vaccine vs someone who needs a prescription refill. There’s only so much care you can provide in a telehealth consultation to someone with heart attack symptoms, so you’ll need to prioritize care in a hospital or in-person clinic safely. It might be OK to defer a routine vaccine a month or two or hold the appointment in a safer location with less COVID-19 community spread. And, you could most likely handle a simple prescription refill remotely on a telehealth appointment.
5. Train your team on new technology first
Before testing the new technology on patients, it’s important to train your doctors, nurses, and administrative staff first. If they spend 10 minutes fumbling around with how to get their webcam to work, they won’t inspire confidence with your patients.
Pro tip: In addition to detailed training manuals, you might even want to provide mandatory training workshops and drills for anyone who will be using the technology.
6. Share telehealth protocols with patients
Your patients won’t know about the new telehealth service unless you tell them. Even if it’s on your website, you cannot realistically expect all of your patients to discover the information on their own.
Here are some communication tactics you can use to promote the service:
- Communicate your organization’s policies during the COVID-19 health crisis as soon as you implement them.
- Call patients with upcoming appointments and let them know how any new policies will affect their appointment.
- Change your messaging scripts to share information about telehealth services. Contact high-risk patients, such as the elderly, as soon as possible.
7. Communicate with remote team members and vendors
To keep your telehealth services running smoothly, ensure open communication with all stakeholders. This means communicating with schedulers, presenters, clinicians, nursing staff, and anyone else working remotely. Be open to feedback and regularly check to make sure that billing systems, IT support, administration, and other functions are running as they should be.
It can help to bring onsite staff together on a regular basis, such as quarterly, to discuss any issues with the telehealth program or connecting with remote partners. Encouraging communication means the organization can gather feedback, make improvements, and move forward with patient care.
8. Maintain accurate records
Just as you would maintain detailed records for patients who walk through the door, you’ll also need to keep accurate electronic records for those using telemedicine services.
You’ll want to record as much as possible, including any assessments or treatment plans — in addition to collecting signed HIPAA forms and waivers from all patients.
9. Come up with a backup plan
There will be times when you need to escalate care for a patient or consult with a specialist or other provider in person. And sometimes, your telehealth software might have an outage.
In these scenarios, you’ll need to have protocols in place so your staff can take the appropriate action.
For instance, if your video chat software fails, how will your staff reach out to the patient? Have a plan in place before the need arises so everyone’s on the same page.
10. Ask for patient feedback
While you can certainly anticipate some of the challenges patients will face when using telehealth technology — such as a learning curve on video chats for some elderly patients without smartphones — you can’t predict everything. There could be trouble areas that your IT department didn’t expect.
This is where asking for feedback from patients — whether it’s during their appointment or in a follow-up survey afterward — can be beneficial. You can use this valuable feedback to make continuous improvements as everyone adjusts to using the new service.
In addition to the tips above, stay informed about COVID-19 cases in your community. Monitoring trends in local case counts will help you prepare for increased demand in telehealth services. Check with the CDC regularly for additional guidance on safely operating during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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