By Julieta Ducasa, MSN
Clinical Solutions Consultant, Central Logic
Not a lot of positives have come out of the coronavirus pandemic. But telehealth has emerged as a bright spot, both for healthcare organizations and the communities they serve.
I watched in awe as providers across the country pivoted to virtual healthcare to help meet the needs of COVID-19 patients, while safeguarding clinicians and non-infected patients. At the same time, telehealth helped fill the void created by postponed or cancelled in-person visits to physician offices and hospitals. Providers should be commended for embracing a rapidly growing set of technologies to remotely deliver vital — even lifesaving — services.
Interestingly, this recent trend follows many years of reluctance by consumers, providers, and payers to adopt telemedicine on a broad scale. It’s heartening to see how quickly this resistance dissolved in the face of a dire national emergency!
Yet telehealth has a long history of improving access to healthcare resources, expediting care delivery, reducing costs, and increasing satisfaction among patients and providers.
Seeing the benefits of telehealth in ‘real time’
The many compelling benefits of telehealth played out for me in “real time” during the years I was involved with transfer center operations at a 10-hospital health system in Florida. My former boss was (and continues to be) a strong believer in telehealth technology — and I backed her enthusiastically all the way.
In 2014 our transfer center implemented a telepsych program, which was followed by a telestroke program. Our telestroke program, in particular, truly exemplified the benefits I’ve outlined above. Prior to the advent of telestroke, patients who arrived at an emergency department with possible stroke symptoms were routinely transferred to a facility where they could be assessed and treated by a neurologist. However, as any neuro specialist will tell you, not every patient who presents with stroke symptoms is actually suffering a stroke. Consequently, a significant percentage of patients were sent home following their neurological assessment.
With the telestroke program, our neurologists could assess ED patients remotely via an iPad and then determine whether the case warranted a transfer. In some instances, the neurologist might start an intervention prior to transfer, such as ordering thrombolytics for a patient with ischemic stroke. Providing an assessment and placing orders before the transfer was completed significantly reduced the time to intervention and improved outcomes for patients.
On the other hand, our neurologists were able to determine via remote assessments that many patients did not meet stroke criteria and should not be transferred. This resulted in faster discharges from the ED and less crowding in the ED. For our super-busy neurologists, it also meant seeing fewer patients who didn’t require advanced care.
Let’s keep the momentum going
While a pandemic pushed our country toward increased virtual delivery of healthcare services, the scenario I described above (along with many others) helped solidify my advocacy and passion for telehealth. And I hope we don’t lose momentum as the crisis subsides, because telemedicine offers so much promise for the future.
Through continuing innovation, telehealth will better position health systems, clinically, operationally, and financially, to weather the next pandemic or other emergent situation. In addition, it will create new opportunities for providers to expand their service lines and perhaps even extend their reach geographically.
Clearly, there are issues to address. Looking beyond COVID-19, payers must be willing to fund a broader spectrum of services delivered via telehealth — obviously with controls and clearly defined criteria in place. On the consumer side, we need to ensure that lower income individuals have access to the technology that allows them to engage with their providers on a virtual basis. I believe we can overcome these barriers if we put our collective minds to it.
I’m excited to work for a company, Central Logic, that has embraced telemedicine and is committed to supporting our clients in their telehealth endeavors. Our vendor-agnostic technology, coupled with our extensive clinical expertise, offers tremendous advantages to health systems as they integrate telehealth services into their access center operations. I might also point out that Central Logic is a proud member of the American Telemedicine Association, the only organization completely focused on accelerating the adoption of telehealth.
Lastly, if you missed our live AO² event in September, I encourage you to check out the on-demand session, “What the Future Holds for Telemedicine and How to Prepare.” It offers excellent insights into the role of telehealth in a successful healthcare access and orchestration strategy.