At the beginning of 2020, most health facilities had already started working on their strategic initiatives for the year. Unfortunately, most of these initiatives had to be abandoned during the pandemic and will either be permanently terminated or restarted down the line. For those that involved the introduction of new systems or upgrading of the current systems, reprioritization had to be done to allow room for rapid deployment of COVID-19 technology and processes.
The popularity of technologies such as telehealth has certainly been fueled and is playing an exceptional role during the pandemic. With the rising fear of infection, many patients opted for virtual consults, thus allowing health systems to respond quickly to patients’ needs. If we fast forward to post COVID-19, will these solutions still be as popular? The answer is yes. Digital health can become a pillar of health systems and apart from telehealth just being a tool for facilitating care, medical practices and health facilities can scale and continue serving patients with the goal of growing in the long term.
Virtual visits have the potential of remaining important as it can be utilized as a tool for offering services to as many patients as possible; from treating the elderly who cannot leave their homes or are uncomfortable leaving their homes to boosting patient capacity without physical visits. It can also be utilized for expanding reach to new regions or new communities. To fully optimize these systems, the end goal has to be identified so that a clear telehealth plan can be built and adapted accordingly. Let’s look at several ways that telehealth can be optimized from the initial point of contact with patients to treatment or final discharge.
In a typical situation when you have an appointment with a doctor, you either make the visit or not. If you miss your appointment, you may have to wait several days, weeks or even months to see the doctor again. With telehealth, scheduling an appointment is not enough on its own and facilities can optimize by sending reminders as the appointment draws closer, either a day before or the morning of the appointment via text message or email, (with the former more preferable) making communication key in the success of telehealth. Two-way text messaging can also be employed for doctors to be notified of the patients’ arrival, with the communication being managed by the front desk.
A robust pre-registration process needs to be defined where all necessary information pertaining to the patient is collected from symptoms, demographic data to insurance information. This information can be collected using a questionnaire which physicians review without coming into contact with the patient thus reducing the patient load that front office staff are already dealing with. The information can then be verified against existing records. For those facilities offering free outreach services to the public, this can be a good avenue for treating patients without the need for physical visits.
Checking-in with the front desk can become history with telehealth, but not entirely obsolete. Firsty, verification of patient information by the front desk is particularly important to ensure all information has been entered correctly in order to avoid discrepancies. With an optimized telehealth system, patients can enter or update their information which is directly sent to the front office staff for verification. They are then notified via text message or email with a link to access the appointment time and date once their information has been verified. The use of virtual waiting rooms can be handy at this stage to monitor the online queues and schedules to see who's next and to let the doctor know when the patient is ready. Examples of such systems in The Daktari which is being used by organizations such as Jacaranda Health.
Such a model can be designed to accommodate the different workflows in hospitals with the capability of scaling when there is a surge, thus making the potential of telehealth undeniable. It only requires proper planning to replicate the best in-person experiences to create the best virtual environment for the delivery of care.