The telemedicine market has been growing steadily year over year as technology advances and patient comfort with it grows. Given today’s climate amid the COVID-19 crisis, virtual appointments are more in demand and necessary than ever. The Center for Disease Control recommends replacing “elective and non-urgent” procedures or appointments with telemedicine to limit face-to-face interaction and slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The good news is that care administered virtually meets or exceeds the standards of a traditional in-person appointment. But implementation has also presented new challenges for patients and healthcare professionals alike. Below are some of the common challenges that physicians face when adapting to telemedicine and how to circumvent each one.
1. Building patient awareness around the services you offer
As with any new service, you will need to get the word out. But many patients are heeding warnings to “stay at home” and practice social distancing; they may assume that your office is closed for the time being.
The first thing many patients will do is to Google your practice. So make sure your Google My Business listing is not only up to date but that it also highlights your telemedicine capabilities. Likewise, be sure to update all major healthcare websites (like Healthgrades, Vitals, WebMD, etc.) because patients who are actively looking for care are most likely searching on these sites. You can even integrate calls to action within your profiles on these third-party sites that direct patients to schedule a virtual appointment online. Share any updates about changes to care options (i.e., virtually or in-person appointments) through social media to let your patients know what’s available to them. Facebook, for example, now lets businesses update their profiles with temporary service changes, like virtual appointments.
Use one-to-many communication tools like email or text blasts to inform patients of your response to COVID-19 — including telemedicine services. Make sure your website, voicemail, and any auto-reply email messages are updated with this information. At larger organizations, make sure any find-a-doctor directory identifies physicians who practice virtually and make sure it’s easy to book that kind of appointment with them. And don’t forget to ask patients to review the experience like you would a normal appointment: This helps to build the social proof that telemedicine is an effective alternative to in-office treatment.
2. Overcoming video or connection problems
From the patient experience perspective, some of the greatest frustrations relate to the technology needed to conduct a virtual appointment not functioning properly. Dropped calls. Pixelated video. Choppy audio. While only mildly annoying in our day-to-day lives, these snafus during a telemedicine appointment can not only be distracting, but they can cause lapses in communication and make patients wary of future telemedicine visits.
To minimize technological difficulties, make sure you are using a secure, fast, and, if possible, hard-wired internet connection. Close out all unnecessary apps to ensure the highest-quality video, and know who can help you troubleshoot if an issue arises. Since telemedicine is a two-way street, encourage your patients to follow these best practices as well ahead of the appointment. Make sure you’re both in a private, quiet, and clutter-free environment to keep distractions down and ensure you can hear each other. Sit in front of a blank wall to help your patient stay focused, and turn off all ringers and notifications on your devices so you can keep your attention on the patient. Find more dos and don’ts of telemedicine, including best practices for telemedicine etiquette, here.
3. Bringing your bedside manner to the screen
The need for empathy and human connection is never more apparent than it is in a time of crisis. But demonstrating empathy through digital means can be difficult for some. The physical separation opens space for psychological distancing and can cause a further riff in the physician–patient relationship. You must go out of your way to express empathy during a telemedicine appointment and personalize the experience for each patient. Practice active and empathic listening using verbal and nonverbal signs: Keep your stance open and your arms loose, either in your lap or on the table in front of you, maintain eye contact, and lean into the screen when the patient is speaking. Repeat key phrases back to them to show that you’re listening. This also gives them a chance to correct anything they may have missed.
4. Handling reimbursement and setting billing expectations
In light of the public health emergency, Medicare and most other insurers will now cover real-time telemedicine appointments on par with in-office visits.* Document each virtual visit just as you would an in-office appointment to ensure the patient’s medical records are updated properly and you’re able to bill correctly. For an in-depth billing guide to telemedicine, click here.
Equally important is setting the patient’s expectations for what they will and will not be financially responsible for. Many may be unaware that several telemedicine services are treated like an in-person appointment by their insurance companies. While navigating the new and complicated billing landscape for telemedicine may seem discouraging, remember that the return will be well worth the investment in effort — and that telemedicine is here to stay: 83% of patients say that they will likely be using telemedicine long after the pandemic is over.
Virtual appointments have clear and widespread advantages during the current pandemic, including reducing the need for face-to-face interaction, flattening the curve, and keeping patients out of the ER. To get started on your telemedicine journey, reach out to a Doctor.com practice consultant here.
* Rules and regulations are changing rapidly. Be sure to check with current Medicare and insurance policies.