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Can Telehealth Bring the Humanity Back to Healthcare?

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   May 02, 2022

The American Telemedicine Association kicked off ATA2022 this week with an examination of the challenges faced by care providers, and a plea that telehealth could be the avenue by which providers reconnect with their patients and understand the patient experience.

Telehealth, as everyone likes to say these days, is here to stay. But the really exciting thing is what it can do to bring humanity back to healthcare.

That was the big take-away from the first day of the American Telemedicine Association’s first in-person conference in three years, taking place this week in Boston. With a theme focused on “What now?”, the several hundred attendees milling about the convention center were told that empathy and connection are the keys to continuing virtual care in a post-pandemic world.

“It’s really about how we care for people,” said Adrienne Boissy, the former chief experience officer of the Cleveland Clinic who became chief medical officer of digital health company Qualtrics in 2021, in an opening keynote that focused on the idea of agility.

ATA CEO Ann Mond Johnson kicked off the three-day event Sunday morning with a call for attendees to recognize that the pandemic may have brought telehealth to the forefront and proven its value, but it also exposed long-standing challenges, ranging from policy and regulation to licensing and addressing social determinants of health.

“There is more than broadband and interactive access that we have to deal with,” she said.

This includes the idea that the business of healthcare has gotten away from the simple, basic act of helping people with their health. While the nation may be moving toward ideas like value-based and patient-centered care, much of what’s still taking place these days is episodic, centered on the healthcare provider or site, and plagued by a reliance on payment. That, compounded by the perils of COVID-19, is why so many healthcare providers are stressed out and either gone or ready to go.

And that’s where telehealth can and should help.

Joe Kvedar, the Harvard Medical School professor and longtime digital health expert, pointed out that consumers “have always been enthusiastic” about telehealth because it helps them access care when and where they want it, while payers are still ambivalent but leaning in the right direction. Providers, he said, “are our biggest challenge.”

Hospitals may lose revenue on telehealth, he said, and “there’s a lot of holding back” in embracing virtual care because of the uncertainty surrounding reimbursement and, in some cases, clinical value. But the healthcare industry has to understand that telehealth checks some of the boxes that in-person care can’t, and it’s what consumers want.

More importantly, said Boissy, it gives providers and consumers and opportunity to connect in ways they haven’t before.

“This should be a wake-up for us,” she said.

Boissy pointed out that we’ve gotten to the point where consumers are fed up with their healthcare options, and will seek out providers who give them what they want. And it’s up to healthcare to give them what they want. Telehealth gives them that opportunity to meet the consumer, and to establish a connection that goes beyond occasional office visits. It gives them an opportunity to collaborate with patients on their health and wellness.

Furthermore, Boissy said telehealth gives providers an opportunity to engage with patients and enrich the patient experience – to which she quickly added that the patient experience isn’t just “any question on a survey.”

“It starts with communication,” she said.

Boissy said the healthcare industry, for the most part, may have forgotten how to communicate with consumers, or it may not understand what communication means. Providers, she said, tend to say “I understand” too quickly, or far too often, driving a wedge between them and patients who don’t think their doctors are listening to them.

And one of the biggest issues that consumers have with healthcare is access. It may take days to schedule a visit to the doctor, and hours to travel to the doctor’s office, yet the doctor may spend only a few minutes with the patient for an issue that could have been handled with a simple video visit.

Healthcare providers are reluctant to embrace those video visits because they aren’t getting reimbursed for them as well as for the in-person visit, but consumers want that access, and they’re willing to switch providers – or even ditch the tradition primary care provider model for a platform supported by their health plan or a retail site like Amazon, Google or Walmart – to get what they want.

“Who’s going to win the battle for primary care?” Kvedar pointed out.

As he, Boissy and the other speakers on day one of the ATA conference emphasized, telehealth can be the platform by which healthcare providers re-engage with consumers and understand the value of the patient experience.

Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, and Pharma for HealthLeaders.

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