Healthcare technology, like all technology, has evolved and expanded rapidly in recent years. Electronic health records, for example, were implemented in only 9% of hospitals in 2008; while in 2015, EHRs were in 96% of hospitals.1
Telehealth, namely web and video technology, has also expanded. In 2015, nearly 70% of hospitals and physician practices had used two-way video or web camera technology for patient-care related activities, up from 58% in 2014, according to survey results from HIMSS Analytics.2 This growth propelled video to the most popular form of telehealth delivery in the industry.
Driving this expansion are providers who are recognizing that many types of patient encounters, such as follow-up appointments, do not always require an in-person visit for secure, high-quality care. One analysis found that 75% of all office, urgent and emergency room visits are unnecessary or could be handled safely over the phone or by video. In this way, telehealth technology also presents an opportunity to keep people healthier by reducing potential exposure to viruses while visiting the ED, estimated to affect 35% to 38% of ED patients.3
Also increasing telehealth activity are the three following trends and advancements surrounding web conferencing. These economic and technological factors are positively benefiting telehealth delivery by supporting organizational goals to improve care, patient engagement and financial performance.
Reducing Costs for Providers & Patients
Web and video conferencing for telehealth has steadily become more affordable for providers and patients and is a less costly delivery form than in-person care.4
The early days of web and video conferencing for telehealth was limited, in part, due to high broadband costs and technology limitations. The consumer and healthcare technology markets, however, have changed rapidly in recent years. For example, 80% of Americans now have broadband access at home or through a mobile device, up from 40% in 2006.5 Another study found consumers paid $2.19 per megabit of data through their Internet service provider in 2015; while in 2004, they were paying $12.50 per megabit.6
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Providers, too, have benefitted from the decrease in broadband costs, but also with the migration of premises-based servers to cloud-based technology. Transitioning to the cloud has allowed providers to outsource hardware and software maintenance and updates while consistently receiving the most up-to-date platforms available from their vendors.
These infrastructure cost reductions can allow providers to offer telehealth services through web and video conferencing at a price that is affordable for both patients and payers and that is financially viable for the organization. Recognizing this trend, 49 states now offer coverage for telehealth under Medicaid plans and 30 states have enacted telehealth reimbursement parity laws for commercial insurance.7
Enhanced Flexibility and Security
As technology has improved in functionality and security, it has also become more flexible to meet changing needs of providers and patients.
More web conferencing platforms moving to the cloud due to cost and time savings can also offer greater flexibility for providers and patients. Providers are no longer tethered to a desktop computer at the hospital or practice to conduct telehealth encounters, but rather can deliver care through any web-camera equipped device that can securely connect to the internet. Technology improvements have also made web and video conferencing operation simpler, eliminating complex log-ins or network configurations.
Likewise, patients can access care through their laptop or mobile device in any location they have adequate Wi-Fi or broadband cellular connection. Web conferencing technology is now able to deliver high-definition video resolution and audio to improve the intimacy of the encounter and enhance provider-patient interactions.
Greater flexibility and mobility, however, should not come at the expense of security. Most web and video conferencing platforms offer end-to-end encryption using SSL/TLS protocol and the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) 256, which is standard across numerous industries including government and finance. Encryption is also required to comply with the HIPAA Security Rule when protected health information is exchanged. Private cloud options, offered by preferred web conferencing platforms, can further enhance security during telehealth encounters.
Financial and Quality Goals
Advances in web and video conferencing technology are making it more convenient and cost-effective to offer telehealth encounters, but healthcare organizations are also considering how telehealth helps further care quality and financial goals.
One of telehealth’s main advantages is its ability to connect with patients who have challenges visiting providers, which can improve patients’ adherence to treatment regimens. Offering care management visits and post-discharge follow-ups for these patients through web and video conferencing allows them to have a face-to-face encounter without the time and expense of travel.
This level of care can encourage engagement in patients with chronic conditions as well as patients who often demand greater convenience and on-demand provider access. In fact, 61% of consumers would switch providers to get a faster appointment and 52% of patients would switch providers to obtain an appointment at a convenient location.8
Improving care access through telehealth can also help organizations reach financial goals. By scheduling blocks of time or dedicating providers to deliver care through web conferencing, organizations can likely increase the volume of patients treated, as one study estimated.9 Additionally, from a cost-reduction perspective, replacing in-person visits for Medicare patients with telehealth visits that are reimbursed at the same rate visit could save an estimated $45 per visit.10
Although using web and video conferencing to deliver high-quality, cost-effective care is rapidly expanding across the industry, many providers are just now discovering its potential. In the coming years, however, as more providers implement secure, highly flexible platforms, it is likely that telehealth will soon become a service patients expect from all providers.
Colin Thesiera is senior director of operations and technology at Brother OmniJoin.