When the pandemic arrived in early 2020, the healthcare industry faced a looming crisis and it compelled leadership to address some unprecedented challenges within their organizations, including how to manage their digital transformation strategies. For years, healthcare had lagged behind other industries in the adoption of digital technologies. While digital experiences were gaining more acceptance and adoption with consumers and the workforce in areas such as retail and financial services, those experiences were less common in healthcare.
Much of that changed with the pandemic. Telehealth was being adopted at a respectable rate up to that point but all of a sudden, the demand exploded. With many patients needing remote access to health services, healthcare providers had to fulfill an immediate need. Unfortunately, some were not completely prepared for the abrupt shift.
But there was a silver lining. COVID-19 helped accelerate the digital transformation for many healthcare providers, not only helping them meet patient needs but improving the patient experience. Forrester Research says the most impactful COVID-19 technologies for healthcare include patient portals, telehealth, patient-focused tools and remote patient monitoring.
While the pandemic has been the catalyst, gains in the use of telehealth services cannot be seen as entirely due to the health crisis. Demand existed previously, and according to a Cleveland Clinic 2017 study, the vast majority of patients surveyed were positive about telehealth. 90.9% said it made care easier to get, while 82% responded that telehealth was as good as in-person care. It’s also believed that the widespread use of technology is having an effect too. According to this report, society’s adoption of technology is driving the “digitization of hospital services.”
Technology is at the root of the generational shift in which remote care is normalized and sometimes preferable to an in-person visit. Digital natives are driving demand for digital-first experiences and healthcare consumerism. And while it is uncertain just exactly what it will look like in the future, most believe that telehealth will continue to be used in greater numbers even after the necessity of doing so from the pandemic has passed.
“We are not going back to business as normal. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed things forever,” said Brian Koffman, MDCM, during a presentation at the 25th Annual International Congress on Hematologic Malignancies in February 2021. “COVID-19 has served as a catalyst to a safer, more efficient, and more patient-centric experience through increased telehealth options.”
From its peak in April 2020, telehealth usage stabilized at 38x above pre-pandemic levels in February of 2021. The United States saw a decline in telehealth usage for the third month running in April 2021. It is important to note that utilization remained significantly higher than pre-Covid levels. But this is in line with expectations. Telemedicine – a subset of telehealth that only includes clinical visits – will likely account for 20% of all appointments.
The specialties with the highest usage have been psychiatry followed by substance abuse services. But at Houston Methodist Center Cancer, patients with cancer have also had positive experiences with telehealth during the pandemic. Of the 1762 cancer patients surveyed, 1477 (83.8%) chose a telehealth visit over an in-person visit.
Patients were very satisfied with this option; 92.6% of patients surveyed said they were satisfied with video visits, and 54.8% said they were interested in having all or most of their visits be telehealth in the future. Among physicians, 65.2% were satisfied or very satisfied with the visits, and 43.5% said they were highly like to continue telehealth visits for established patients post pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, nearly 100% of Houston Methodist Cancer Center’s 40,000 ambulatory visits were in person.
The future looks promising for patients that prefer a digital-first experience. But there are challenges. One is the issue of access. Lower socioeconomic patients in the United States may not have broadband access, which severely impairs their ability to receive digital health services. Compliance is always a concern for health care providers as well. While there has been an exemption on the books to allow providers to use non-HIPAA compliant services to work with their patients, that is not likely to continue.
Healthcare providers also experience challenges in how to best achieve their digital transformation strategies. Organizations had been slow to adopt digital technology, but the pandemic drove the need to either initiate or expedite that transformation. That included improving the patient experience in their digital journey through a patient portal, or digital front door.
The digital front door provides access points to the patient’s experience with the provider but it’s much more than that. It’s a patient’s entire telehealth and digital journey and how they engage with the healthcare organization for their care. It’s also how the provider delivers an efficient, safe and secure digital experience to the patient so that they want to keep coming back. But an effective digital transformation strategy addresses more than just the patient experience.
The pandemic further highlighted the need for healthcare providers to embrace their workforce to help deliver an exceptional experience. Digital workforce management benefits healthcare workers by giving them easier access to patient information and from a variety of devices. This benefits your patients’ experience by offering them more efficient care from happier workers. But your workforce strategy should also include the employee experience from HR to training to collaboration. When providers improve experiences for their employees, they also improve their delivery of care, operational performance and brand image.
Whether delivering an exceptional patient experience or improving the efficiency of their workforce, healthcare organizations must ensure that their telehealth environment is safe and secure. The foundation for any digital transformation effort should be to protect patients, employees and the organization and all their data. A reliable identity management and cybersecurity plan is essential to avoiding breaches, protecting data, preventing hackers and ransomware and maintaining regulatory compliance. Healthcare security and IT professionals must also embrace Zero Trust principles for user’s networks, devices, and applications.
Telehealth will continue to grow in importance in the healthcare industry and has the ability to reduce costs while making care more accessible, convenient and effective. It has the support of patients and doctors and is gaining more widespread acceptance as a healthcare option going forward. Healthcare organizations need to put the right digital strategies in place to provide access for everyone, protect privacy and secure data, and ensure that they deliver and exceptional experience for patients and the healthcare workforce.