Experts Express Guarded Optimism for Wider Telehealth Adoption

| URAC Staff
doctor using tablet with medical interface. Medicine and innovation concept

Telehealth has already impacted healthcare delivery in ways that seemed almost unimaginable just a few years ago, and there’s much more change on the horizon according to a panel of experts discussing the future of telehealth at the Telemed Leadership Forum 2019 in Washington, D.C., sponsored by URAC.

“It’s not a matter of whether [greater adoption of telehealth] will happen, but what it will look like,” said Dr. Adam Darkins, president and CEO of Empiricon, and chief strategy officer, AristaMD.

Empowering patients with their own health records will fuel telehealth adoption, said Patrick McCarthy, director of telehealth services, Northwell Health. When patients “own and carry” their own data with them it will engender “smart consumers” more than ready to embrace telehealth in a number of applications. “The sky’s the limit when we crack that nut” of patient health record portability, he said. In addition to some technology hurdles, he suggested that the current culture where “health systems own it and think it’s their data” is slowing achievement of that goal. But, just as credit reports have become much more transparent and available to customers, so too will health records, he predicted.

“Health record portability will be huge,” agreed Dr. Darkins. Patients armed with their own healthcare data and history will make it much easier for doctors to leverage telehealth, especially when it’s a first or one-off visit, he said.

However, it’s critical to remember successful telehealth adoption is about more than increased data and accessibility, cautioned Shawn Griffin, M.D., president and CEO, URAC. Physicians will still have to be able to have “meaningful context” in order to quickly assess what data is relevant to a given patient encounter, he noted. In addition, that doctor-patient relationship will likely remain paramount whether care is delivered via telehealth or in-person, Dr. Griffin said.

Trends are changing, though, said McCarthy. Speaking of today’s millennials, he suggested “that kind of relationship doesn’t matter as much” to them. “They’ve always sought out new knowledge [and] done more comparison shopping” whether it’s a new restaurant or a consumer good purchase, McCarthy said. The millennial segment of the population tends to be more mobile, too, he said. They value convenience and value over relationships in ways older patients might not, he said.

Scott Stuewe, president of DirectTrust, agreed, noting that the future of telehealth will ride in parallel with the future of technology innovation and adoption. Patients will be “less concerned about being physically present with a doctor because the technology will improve” to the point that the visit “feels” virtually the same, he said. “A doctor today can be in Hawaii with his kids, but present as an avatar to a patient” during consult and treatment, he said. “This isn’t pie in the sky [talk], that’s gaming technology now,” he said.

Reimbursement is also a key factor, panelists said. It’s not realistic to expect doctors and other healthcare professionals to perform services via telehealth unless they are able to bill for it, and that’s not always the case today, McCarthy said, calling it “the biggest obstacle” to future telehealth adoption. “Bigger than technology and bigger than generational issues,” he added.

Regardless, the human factor is significant when trying to predict the future of telehealth adoption, panelists said. “There’s a change management challenge,” Dr. Darkins said. A “rigid, hierarchical” system has engendered a sense of “entitlement” among some healthcare professionals, he suggested. “Those most invested in the [current] structure are the most insecure” and averse to it, he warned.

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