A Hidden Advantage Of Telehealth: Patient Access To Specialized Programs

Not long ago, I found out that I needed access to a specialized program to address a long-standing medical condition. As it happens, the medical support I need is in short supply in my area, so I thought it would take a while to access the right package of services.

At first, my prediction seemed to be on target. Despite having a lot of experience advocating for myself and finding the care I needed, I was turned away time and again by programs that didn’t have any openings. I was beginning to wonder whether such care was available at all.

Then, someone offered a suggestion that turned things around. Given that pretty much all modes of outpatient care are being delivered via telehealth technology, they asked, why not expand my search to providers outside of my usual search radius?

This technique worked. Within just a few hours, I connected with a program I’d never heard of until that day.

Ordinarily, it would have been virtually impossible to take advantage of their services, as the facility is an hour and a half away from my home. These days, however, its ability to deliver program services to nearly anyone, there was no reason not to sign me up. The staff there signed me up for its offering with no hesitation.

This story highlights a new benefit emerging out of telehealth-based care. Not only does it give individual patients living far away from healthcare providers better access to care, telehealth programs are extending the service area addressed by healthcare organizations.

Not only that, telehealth-based specialty programs are helping to balance and redistribute patient flow in a newly-efficient way. Rather than pitting facilities and providers against one another, these efforts allow patients to access available capacity in a manner that wouldn’t have been possible when virtual care efforts were one-off propositions.

In this case, I found a program whose location I could conceivably visit in a pinch. This seemed to offer social workers, discharge planners and the like a feeling of security, particularly given that they might very well have had face-to-face contact with staffers there before.

That being said, getting patients the specialized care and support they need will be more important than referring them to programs with which they have had long-term contact.

For some of you, the lack of direct personal relations with remote specialty programs might sound risky. After all, you might argue, how can you tell whether those programs actually do a good job?

I’d say this is a pretty weak argument, though. While providers generally prefer to refer patients to programs and providers they see as effective, there’s no guarantee a patient will feel comfortable with that program, for a multitude of reasons including a simple lack of chemistry with the specialists delivering the most critical services they need.

All in all, I’d argue that the ability to expand their geographical reach and offer comprehensive specialty care is an important new development. As providers develop from increasingly sophisticated telehealth programs, they may bring on a wave of new patients who wouldn’t have connected with them any other way.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.