It certainly wasn't hard to find major telemedicine proponents at the American Telemedicine Association's annual conference, Telehealth 2.0, which wrapped up Tuesday evening in Orlando. Their message is that telehealth can benefit providers and patients and — if it is done well — they both prefer it.
Billed as the largest telehealth innovation and networking event, Telehealth 2.0 featured a giant, hopping exhibit hall and numerous panels discussing the latest trends in the rapidly growing field. That growth is both a blessing and a curse. It means exciting new ideas and technology for improved care delivery. But growing pains include a lack of collaboration, agreement on best practices and a realization that providers need to be on the ground floor of the movement.
Here are the top takeaways from this year's conference.
1. Patients like telemedicine
People may be wary of video chatting with their doctor or think that text messaging isn’t a way to solve health problems, but the convenience of telemedicine is alluring. And when patients try a virtual doctor's visit or another telehealth model, they tend to really like it.
Ari Melmed, medical director of the multi-specialty practice Colorado Permanente Medical Group, said the Chat With a Doc program from CirrusMD that he uses increased patient volumes as soon as it was launched — all without any promotion. Over 75% of patients surveyed said they had an “excellent” experience and were “extremely likely” to recommend the program.
Telemedicine has enabled a shift in mindset from provider-based care to consumer-based care, said Henry DePhillips, chief medical officer of telehealth company Teladoc. Patients can get services when they want, where they want and how they want.
“The customer satisfaction with our telemedicine program is very high,” he said.
2. Standards and guidelines are needed
Multiple speakers at ATA lamented the lack of evidence-based clinical guidelines for providers.
When multi-specialty medical group Southwest Medical in Nevada launched its telemedicine program in 2013, the organization tried to come up with its own guidelines, according to Lo Fu Tan, the care provider's associate medical director of on-demand medicine. Other companies have also worked to create best practices and the industry can use these as a launching point.
“I think that’s something we really need to work as a group here and as an organization really hard on,” he said.
Teladoc's DePhillips said a group of telehealth leaders is working on a framework for measuring telemedicine quality outcomes that companies and government agencies can use. Teladoc has created its own library of evidence-based clinical practice guidelines that it regularly updates, but the information is considered proprietary.
3. The industry is starting to collaborate
As the telemedicine field continues to grow, collaboration in the industry will become ever more important.
Teladoc's DePhillips said he believes that's starting to happen in a big way. “I think there’s a clearer vision for what the appropriate next steps are to keep the industry safe and credible while increasing value as well as efficiency and cost savings,” he said.
Ava George, a family physician at Cleveland Clinic, said the industry should collaborate to address concerns about fragmentation of care, proper diagnoses and effective treatment plans. Organizations can also share their data to help others provide the best care.
“We’ve had very limited research on telehealth and quality to date,” she said.
4. It’s about practice, not just shiny technology
When Dan Trencher, Teladoc's senior vice president of product and corporate strategy, first started attending ATA five years ago, most of the exhibitors were showing off the latest devices that hospitals and providers could use. Now, there is a lot more to see — from EHR software to technology companies that aim to help with telemedicine workflow, interoperability and data gathering.
“It used to be very much focused on hardware with very few services companies. That has totally flipped on its ear.”
Senior vice president of product and corporate strategy at Teladoc
“It used to be very much focused on hardware with very few services companies,” he said. “That has totally flipped on its ear.”
There were still plenty of hardware demonstrations, to be sure, but as the telemedicine field has grown, those who work in it are learning that successful telehealth is about a lot more than just having the latest gadgets.
5. Telemedicine is medicine
Amongst the meetings rooms, networking groups and people charging their cell phones was a place for attendees to write (on big ATA letters) what telemedicine means to them. Phrases to the effect of telemedicine being about the same things as all medicine is about were a common theme.
Other frequent sentiments were about how telemedicine can increase access and put patients in charge of their care.
Providers left notes, too. One attendee wrote: “Telehealth lets me work from home! I love that I can still work as a psychiatrist and be a mom! Best two jobs ever!!”
Also of note: “Spencer was here.”
6. Physician buy-in is a must
High-acuity telehealth services provider Advanced ICU Care spends several months prospecting with potential clients before moving forward on implementing a telemedicine plan, according to Lou Silverman, chairman and CEO of the company. Vendors have to gain the trust of hospital executives and, even more importantly, the providers who will be using the systems the most.
“Only when you have that clinical buy-in will the organization fully commit to implementing our service,” he said. “Steamrolling through that is not a recipe for success.”
Rural physicians can be especially anxious about working remotely with other clinicians, according to Deanna Larson, senior vice president at Avera eCARE, which offers telehealth consulting for rural and critical access hospitals. They are relatively isolated and are often not used to a lot of collaboration.
“All of a sudden there’s the recognition that someone’s watching,” she said.
Silverman said a successful telemedicine program should be a recruitment draw for hospitals and clinics because it makes physicians’ jobs easier and offer more flexibility.
“Only when you have that clinical buy-in will the organization fully commit to implementing our service. Steamrolling through that is not a recipe for success.”
Chairman and CEO of Advanced ICU Care