The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus has the healthcare industry turning a spotlight on telemedicine. In this new era of “social distancing,” monitoring and caring for patients digitally become necessities. HIPAA regulations have been relaxed to accommodate increased demand for telemedicine. For physicians, conducting appointments virtually is not only a way to keep working, but it’s simply the right thing to do.
Most physicians cite the public’s reluctance to use telemedicine as their main deterrent to offering those services. But, according to a report released at the beginning of 2020, patient usage is actually up 33% over the previous year — and probably even more so today due to current circumstances. It’s easy to see why. Telemedicine is more convenient and has been shown to improve patient satisfaction with the care they receive. During COVID-19, patients may use telemedicine out of necessity, but many healthcare professionals project that the trend will continue long after this pandemic is over.
For practices or departments that are hesitant, you’d be surprised at how much you can practice virtually. For example, telemedicine can effectively be used to provide continuous care for those with chronic conditions, to screen for elective surgery candidates and some acute illnesses, or to deliver some forms of remote physical therapy. Telemedicine can be particularly beneficial for older or otherwise at-risk patients who are more likely to contract COVID-19 (and disease in general) and should avoid waiting rooms when possible. Since telemedicine regulations vary from state to state, keep up with the most current laws here.
But running a virtual practice (or hospital) doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t just sign up for a program or download an app and hope for the best. To be truly successful, you’ll need to build an online presence around your telemedicine services — much like you do for your physical practice or hospital listing.
Here are three fundamental steps to help you get started in building a successful virtual practice or clinic.
1. Choose your telemedicine technology wisely.
The first one may seem obvious: You need the right technology in place. But deciding what platform to use can be an overwhelming process with so many options flooding the market. Due to relaxed regulations during the pandemic, options today vary widely — from free consumer apps (e.g., FaceTime and Google) to robust EHR-integrated platforms. Cost may be of chief concern, especially if you’re netting less income overall.
Some basic questions to ask yourself and your organization to help build your criteria:
- How easy is the platform to use? (Hint: A user-friendly interface will help improve patient adoption and usage.)
- Does it meet my security and privacy requirements?
- Is it cloud based, or does it require installation?
- How much am I willing to spend?
- How robust do I need my platform to be? Do I need full EHR integration, or will a reliable communication platform suffice?
While free, no-frills consumer applications such as FaceTime and Google Duo might sound tempting to use in the COVID era, they offer little to no HIPAA compliance or physician data privacy. On the other hand, compliant and robust solutions tend to be costly, require IT support, and come with implementation downtime. If your goal is to get up and running quickly on a simple but secure solution, you may want to consider signing onto Doctor.com’s waitlist to use our free telemedicine product — a secure, HIPAA-compliant solution that lets you start practicing virtually in five minutes or less.
2. Get the word out.
After you’ve implemented your telemedicine platform, or if you already have one in place, the next step is to tell patients a digital option is available. Marketing and communicating your virtual practice to patients is often half the battle (or more). In fact, building your new “virtual practice” is not unlike opening a new physical clinic — you’ll need to do the groundwork to establish an online presence.
Update your profiles on the third-party websites and online directories that patients use to find information about doctors. Pay special attention to Google My Business (GMB), as an uptick in “near me” or zip code-filtered searches will send an influx of patient traffic to your GMB profile. Consider adding banner ads to your Healthgrades page announcing the new feature. Lastly, make sure your website, voicemail, and automated emails reflect your telemedicine capabilities. Patients are desperate for up-to-date information. Educate them on how your practice is addressing COVID-19 and guide them to the tools they need to self-serve in the form of pop-ups on your site, blog posts, and links to trusted resources.
Outside of broadcasting your telemedicine capabilities across the web, make any adjustments to your listings that telemedicine might affect. This includes changes to your office or reception hours, contact information, and treatment options. Keeping your information accurate and consistent web-wide minimizes patient frustrations, improves their access to care, and makes it more likely that they will choose your practice over a competitor’s.
3. Differentiate your virtual services through patient feedback.
A physician’s online ratings and reviews are the #1 factor affecting a patient’s decision to make an appointment. In this new world of telemedicine, they will be even more important in providing the social proof a patient needs to follow through with a virtual visit. Many patients have questions. How effective is telemedicine? Any tech issues? Does the experience feel personal? Reviews from other patients already familiar with the process can go a long way in assuaging these concerns. In fact, telemedicine experiences tend to rate higher among patients, so these reviews will contribute to a boosted star rating overall.
As we navigate this new era of social distancing and self-isolation, telemedicine will enter the mainstream for its coronavirus-prevention properties. It will also help physicians care for their patients during a time of heightened anxiety and increased need.
But to be successful on the virtual playing field, physicians must establish a robust online presence as a foundation that can support their telemedicine practice. To learn more about getting the basics in order as well as Doctor.com’s VirtualVisit platform, reach out to a practice consultant here.