For quite some time, hospitals have been adding to their portfolio of telehealth services, in part as a way to keep their brand top-of-mind with consumers in their service area. Well before physicians were prepared to tackle the process, hospital leaders began to offer virtual care options, especially access to options like telestroke care which work well as a digital service.
But this was just a prelude to bigger things. In recent times, health systems have begun to make increasingly strategic uses of telehealth, often in ways that stand to change the entire workflow within their organizations.
Perhaps the most recent example of such shifts in thinking comes from central Pennsylvania provider WellSpan Health, which recently created an online-only urgent care unit. Through this service, which costs $49 per visit, patients see a doctor or advanced practice clinician and receive a diagnosis, treatment plan and prescriptions if needed.
The new clinic isn’t intended to replace routine face-to-face care, but if the efforts of other hospitals are any guide, it could someday divert acutely but not seriously ill patients by offering an easy substitute for needless emergency department visits.
That has been the experience of LifeBridge Health, whose new “virtual hospital” evaluates and in some cases treats patients remotely. Under LifeBridge’s model, ED providers communicate with patients using a videoconferencing monitor which paramedics bring to patients when responding to medical assistance calls. During the videoconference, patients who don’t need emergency care are directed to less-intense levels of service.
There’s also the approach taken by Intermountain Healthcare, which launched its Connect Care Pro service in 2018. Connect Care Pro, which Intermountain describes as a virtual hospital, brings together 35 telehealth programs and more than 500 clinicians. In its case, one of its main goals is to provide specialized services in rural communities where such care isn’t available.
To manage these projects, hospitals are centralizing how they deliver telemedicine services, according to research conducted last year. The survey, which was conducted by enterprise telemedicine vendor REACH Health, reported that 48% of respondents coordinated telemedicine services at an enterprise level, as compared with 26% letting individual departments run their own show.
It seems clear that hospitals can enjoy many benefits from integrating telemedicine into their high-level planning and long-term growth assumptions. The question will then become whether the various models with which their peers are experimenting have matured enough to pose only a modest risk.
Certainly, if they can use it to improve throughput in their ED, hospitals are likely to embrace enterprise-wide telehealth schemes. However, I’d argue that while such projects are clearly interesting and worthwhile, it’s not yet clear whether it’s appropriate to invest heavily in this approach, and it’s clear that enterprise-grade telehealth systems won’t come cheaply.
That being said, if it becomes clear that strategic telehealth use can help hospitals meet critical goals, they’ll find the money for it somehow. Within the next five to ten years, my guess is that most hospitals will add some form of telehealth to the mix.