One of the major developments of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the phenomenal growth of telehealth use, especially in behavioral health care. Telehealth became ubiquitous during the pandemic, and it is predicted that a large percentage of health care will continue via telehealth even after the public health emergency eases. A recent survey by Qualifacts and the National Council for Behavioral Health found that:
- Before the pandemic, telehealth utilization in behavioral health care was relatively low, with only 2% of organizations providing 80% or more of their care virtually (See COVID-19 and Value-Based Reimbursement: What Do We Know? Where Will it Go?).
- At the height of the pandemic, 60% of behavioral health organizations were providing 80% or more of their care virtually – due to policy changes reducing barriers to telehealth.
- A majority of behavioral health care executives expect the increased utilization of virtual services to continue, with an estimated 40% to 60% of their overall services being provided via virtual platforms (See The New Role of Virtual Care in Behavioral Health).
Before 2020, health care was poised to start using more technology to allow consumers to make appointments, share records, and connect with their clinical professionals electronically. However, COVID-19 forced the rapid adoption of many of these services, particularly telehealth (See 21st Century Cures Act Paves The Way For Telehealth To Bloom During Pandemic). It turns out, consumers appreciate the ease of telehealth, especially because it allows them to avoid traffic and waiting rooms. Clinical professionals have also benefited from telehealth, finding that it allows them to see how their consumers are living day-to-day. Another advantage of telehealth is the ability to reduce barriers to care, such as time away from work and the stigma associated with seeking care (See What You Should Be Thinking About Now).
Mental health services were among the quickest health care specialty to switch to online treatment. With data collected between November 2020 through February 2021, 33% of all mental health appointments were conducted virtually. Primary care followed behind, holding 17% of its visits virtually. Pediatrics held 9% of its visits virtually, cardiology 7%, and OB/GYN visits were at 4%.
But despite the popularity and advantages of telehealth, clinical professionals must recognize that telehealth does not work for all consumers and all conditions. Regardless of age, many individuals are uncomfortable using technology, especially for sharing private health information. Also, not all consumers have access to high-speed internet, and therefore must resort to telephone appointments when an in-person visit is not an option. Above all, clinical professionals need to deliver the same personal, human interaction over the internet or the phone as they do in person. To ensure your clinical staff are maintaining a high quality of care without losing the personal touch while virtual, be sure to follow these key best practices:
- Establish a baseline for in-person versus virtual visits. Take a hard look at your service lines and consumer populations, as well as any payer requirements, when considering how often to require in-person versus virtual visits once the current pandemic ends. Even if your consumers love telehealth, make sure requirements are clear on how frequently they should be seeing consumers in-person — such as once every four telehealth visits — or whatever is determined to be best for your organization, clinical professionals, and payers. Advise your staff to be up front with consumers about the in-person/telehealth requirements from the office. Many people have anxiety as the world re-opens, and it is best to give people advanced notice of plans and expectations for future meetings.
- Acknowledge previous statements. Just like in an in-person visit, encourage your clinical professionals to spend a moment to chat with their consumers, perhaps following up and checking in on what you discussed in your last visit to make sure you both understand where you left off. This also works for clinical professionals as they move from topic to topic during consultations – spending a moment to reiterate an earlier conversation confirms you’re both on the same page. This helps the conversation stay on topic and helps your consumers build a connection with their clinical professionals, even if they have only ever met virtually.
- Listen to your consumers. As the world starts to re-open, advise your clinical professionals to check in with their consumers to see whether they would like to continue virtually, start meeting in-person again, or some combination of the two. Staff should realize it is also important to acknowledge any frustrations consumers may have regarding the platform or anything else in their lives. Even during a virtual appointment, it is obvious if someone is upset by the tone of their voice. Acknowledging these frustrations will demonstrate to consumers that their clinical professionals are present, even if they are not physically in the same room. This person-centered care approach will help your consumers feel more connected to their clinical professionals and actively involved in their treatment, which can positively impact health outcomes.
- Different policies for different diagnoses. As an office policy, it is also important to think about the consumer diagnoses your organization handles to see what works well digitally. Some treatment plans focusing on talk therapy may lend themselves naturally to telehealth, while others requiring injections or blood samples must be conducted in person. Think through the consumer population your organization treats and set some guidelines for your clinical professionals about how they should plan to handle future visits. For example, children being treated for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are typically weighed to make sure they are not losing weight due to appetite loss from medication. Set a policy for parents to weigh children at home or develop a schedule for in-person visits.
- Explain the technology. All these tech tools are great, so long as everyone can use them. As an organization, be prepared to offer some training to your staff on how to effectively use technologies. If consumers are intimidated by a patient portal, they may be too shy to continue with treatments. It is important for your staff to be respectful of consumer’s tech knowledge and offer guidance without being condescending. Depending on your practice, you could even designate someone in the office to handle tech support for all consumers. Whatever you decide–just make sure you have someone available and willing to reach the consumers where they are.
- Do not be afraid to ask questions. Even on a virtual visit, your staff must be able to talk with consumers and engage with them as they would in person. Encourage your staff to make simple small talk to start a conversation, such as commenting about the weather or compliment a new hair style. Even in a virtual world, consumers need to feel connected to clinical professionals, so it is important to show attention to the consumer’s person. Teach your staff basic techniques to recenter and engage again with the conversation should their focus wane briefly.
As the world and industry change and we approach the next normal, provider organizations must embrace the fact that virtual care is here to stay. Incorporating a person-centered approach to care is incredibly important during these times when most of our care is being delivered virtually. To learn more about person-centered care and how to keep your consumers actively engaged in their own health care, view this recent archived webinar, A Stable Connection Should Mean More Than Just a Strong Wi-Fi Signal: How to Keep Care Connections Personal in a Virtual World.