In these extraordinary times, COVID-19 has put a strain on the medical community like few have ever experienced. For medical clinics across the globe, telehealth is one way to rapidly deliver high-quality care to your patients. Starting a telehealth program quickly is important to address this immediate need for care. The benefits of telehealth can be utilized in the future, too. Here’s how to start a telehealth program for your clinic, quickly.
What is telehealth and why is it important?
Telehealth (also known as telemedicine) has been practiced in the U.S. since the 1950s, but not widely. Once confined to a phone consultation instead of an in-person visit, telehealth technology has rapidly expanded in the last few years. It now includes not only video consultations but also virtual check-ins and eVisits.
Telehealth is the broad term used to describe all types of medical appointments that are conducted through any means other than in-person visits. This could include:
- A phone or video consultation with your doctor (most often what people are talking about when they speak of telehealth or telemedicine)
- A virtual check-in to follow up on new medications or treatments from previous visits
- An eVisit that consists of an email or secure text to ask a question about test results or prescriptions
Before COVID-19, typically only existing patients could access all three types of telehealth options. Because many states are under stay-at-home orders, the federal government has recently relaxed regulations temporarily to allow new patients access to these services.
This is important because, during a global pandemic, one of the major telehealth benefits is the safety it offers both patients and clinic staff. Telehealth services are also more convenient for patients and staff.
For patients who don’t have easy access to transportation, telehealth services can also provide the medical care they need. This includes mental health services that can now be delivered in areas that were previously underserved, like rural communities.
Telehealth pros and cons
Telehealth pros and cons are important to note. As stated above, the main pro is safely providing care to patients who may not otherwise receive it. In the future, telehealth could also reduce costs considerably, as doctors could reduce office sizes or in-person equipment.
There are some cons, though. Although it is possible to evaluate patients online, many patients have conditions that require a physical examination. Some patients struggle with the technology, and others just prefer face-to-face encounters.
These are challenges that can be overcome in some cases. If you’re ready to get up and running with telehealth services, this is where to start.
1. Research your local regulations
Understandably, there are concerns about telehealth services when it comes to patient privacy and safety. HIPAA guidelines that protect patient privacy are still in force, but regulations have eased temporarily. When transitioning to telehealth, take the time to research the rules and regulations that still govern your practice.
These may include:
- Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
- Medical board for your area of practice
- Governing medical board for your state
Getting clear on what’s required in your telehealth practice is an important part of setting up your services.
2. Decide on the scope of your telehealth services
Once you’re clear on your responsibilities as a medical provider, decide on the scope of your telehealth services. The goal might be to deliver as many of your regular services as possible to ensure a continuity of care. Maybe you want to focus only on the critical needs of your patients during the crisis (with an eye to expand after). Be clear in the beginning about what you can and cannot accomplish.
When you decide what your practice will look like moving forward, you may also want to consider which services best match certain telehealth technologies. Does every visit need a video consultation? Probably not. Consider which is the best fit for your practice, your patients, and your comfort with the technology.
And remember: you don’t need to start a full-fledged telehealth practice all at once. You can start slowly and ramp up as your team becomes familiar with the technology. Consider starting with low-risk, short check-in appointments for example versus providing care to new patients.
3. Provide your team with telehealth equipment and training
Once you lay out which services you will offer and in what format, get your team ready. There are several different aspects to this step.
Decide on your platform
There are a variety of telehealth platforms you can use. Make sure the platform is easy to use and HIPAA compliant. A platform that is integrated with your EHR software is best, as is one that can help you verify patient eligibility for services.
New COVID-19 specific rules also allow for more relaxed telehealth platform options like Zoom and Google Hangouts. These platforms require verbal patient consent for each visit.
Set up workstations
Help staff working from home set up appropriate workstations. This might mean using two monitors (one for the video consultation and one for the medical record), or it may mean providing tablets or iPads for supporting medical staff to takes notes and record visits.
This piece is crucial to the success of your telehealth practice. You may be serving patients with limited access to technology. They may be resistant to telehealth but still need care, or they may simply need step-by-step guidance to get started. Train support staff to assist patients in setting up their accounts, scheduling appointments, and walking them through the process of receiving care.
The more thoughtful you are about telehealth equipment and training, the better chances your telehealth services will go smoothly.
4. Set up a process
Consider how a telehealth visit might go and set up a process to support that. For example, what happens when a patient indicates they are in the virtual waiting room? Just as with an in-person visit, your nurse or PA might take information on the chief complaint. They may also get patient consent before telling the physician the patient is ready.
At that point, the physician can review the EHR of the patient before connecting into a video chat. For physicians who prescribe scheduled medications (e.g., opioids), verify a patient’s physical location (both the city and state) before proceeding.
Your workflow may look different depending on your practice and the services you offer, but it will basically follow a similar flow. A patient needs to be checked in, verified, and provide consent before the actual visit continues. There is also no requirement to document start and end times with patients, but it may be helpful in the future as you figure out how long to allot for each visit.
For more clinical information about how to address process, patient visits, and billing, we encourage you to watch this webinar hosted by pain management physicians about their switch to telehealth services.
5. Communicate telehealth options to your patients
With the increasing popularity of patient portals, some of your patients may already be familiar with online options that you offer (e.g., prescription refills). When you begin to expand your telehealth services, how will you make sure that new and existing patients know what’s available?
Marketing your new telehealth services utilizes the same marketing channels you use for your practice: your website, your social media, email marketing, and clinic signage.
Update your website
Remember when you first started your website? How important it was to make sure you had the basic information about your practice clearly noted? Implementing telehealth services is no different.
Since so many people turn first to the internet for scheduling and research, start by updating your website. Changes to your website should prominently feature your new telehealth booking options. This includes prominent buttons that take patients directly to a booking landing page. You might consider building some content specific to telehealth services you offer, including any appropriate guidance for getting started, or links to more information on exactly what telehealth means.
Optimize your webpages to include keywords and information concerning telehealth. This is the best way for patients to find doctors offering telehealth. Make sure your home page, contact page, FAQs, and about pages have an easy way to get to your telehealth scheduling. Add this information to other pages as needed.
Tune into social media
Now more than ever, your social media presence is crucial during this state of emergency. Updates on all of your social media channels should include changes to your hours or services. For medical professionals continuing to see patients in an office, social media marketing can be a way to reassure patients of your sanitation protocols or any changes to check-in procedures.
If you are switching to telehealth completely, this should be prominently featured on your social media channels. Consider designing a specific campaign for each channel (e.g., Instagram and Facebook) that takes advantage of each channel’s features. Instagram can feature ads that focus on a particular service you offer. Facebook is a good place to start a dialogue with patients who have questions.
Use your social media to connect with patients as a reassuring presence.
Set up email marketing
Email marketing remains one of the best ways to let your patients know about changes to your practice. This includes new telehealth services. Even before your telehealth platforms are up and running, let patients know your plans and keep them in the loop.
You can use email marketing to do the following:
- Note changes to hours and services offered
- Advertise webinars or online education opportunities for patients to better understand telehealth and how to sign up
- Increase engagement with patients who may feel scared and alienated during a national emergency
- Maintain the sense of community that your office provides patients and staff
Email marketing helps keep the connection between your patients and your clinic strong. More than selling your services, it tells patients that you are a source of support during an uncertain time.
Update clinic signage
Finally, update clinic signage both inside and outside your medical practice. This shows the community that you are still working for them and their health.
Simple updates on services and clinic hours are helpful.
We can help
The current state of emergency concerning COVID-19 means we are all making quick decisions and developing skills we never needed before. As you get your telehealth practice up and running, let Boost Medical take care of your marketing needs. We can help you quickly update your website, social media accounts, and email newsletters to communicate your new services.
You focus on your patients; we’ll focus on your business.