A new study has concluded that by using telehealth tools to screen low-risk patients with suspected COVID-19 had a dramatic effect on emergency department lengths of stay.
The study focused on a telehealth-enabled evaluate-treat-disposition workflow in the ED. During the study, nurses handling in-person triage presented patients with suspected COVID-19 who appeared well and seemed to be at low risk to a remote provider. That provider did the follow-up evaluation, testing as needed, and possible discharge.
Three weeks after the program was implemented, researchers did a retroactive chart review to examine what effects this new approach might have had. The review found that 153 of the 302 patients managed through telehealth were evaluated and discharged by a provider who was also using telehealth tools.
They found that the patients targeted by this study had 62.5% shorter ED lengths of stay compared to other patients of equal severity seen in the same time period. The effort also saved 413 sets of PPE. In addition, just 3.9% of such patients returned in 72 hours, a rate similar to that seen with other patients.
This research presents one of many ways in which telehealth tools can be used to improve the care process. Taking on lower-acuity patients, in particular, may be a relatively painless way of leaving much-needed inpatient beds open for patients with more serious COVID-19 cases.
Looked at more broadly, this story is one of many that could be told about the future of telehealth in day-to-day clinical use. As use cases like these mature, it’s becoming far clearer that telehealth can be used not only to re-engineer workflows but also to improve communication between providers and connect with patients in newer, deeper ways.
Yes, many telehealth encounters will continue to be virtual visits that serve as a direct substitute for in-person care. These visits will probably be somewhat disconnected from other provider processes and will exist largely to connect with patients who can’t make it to their facility.
But telehealth tools are likely to evolve significantly over the next year or two, especially if the pandemic takes an especially long time to subside. With providers needing to adapt to a world dependent on virtual care, they’ll push vendors to integrate better tools into their products. The vendors will also need to make it relatively easy to connect new applications and features into their telehealth platform.
The bottom line here is that while the volume of traditional telehealth seen during the peak of the pandemic might recede, more sophisticated telehealth use among enterprises is likely to keep growing. There are simply too many great things they may be able to do to stop now.