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Our Take

How service lines can prepare for the future of telehealth

20 Minute Read

The Covid-19 pandemic forced telehealth into the realm of specialty care. Given rapid adoption and consumer interest in specialty telehealth, service line leaders are increasingly responsible for decisions around virtual care and services. 

Many service line leaders are now confronted with the decision to continue to invest in telehealth solutions or revert to the pre-pandemic status quo. This document will discuss tactics for integrating telehealth into strategic plans and improving operations for long-term sustainability.


The conventional wisdom

When it comes to specialty care, there are varying conceptions regarding the usefulness or relevancy of telehealth. There is also debate around who is equipped and responsible for formulating and deploying telehealth strategies. In general, we’ve come across two major misconceptions.

1. Telehealth is a priority, but not at the service line level.

Many decisions that impact telehealth, like the money available for investment or the choice of which platform to use, are outside of the scope of service line leaders. Some systems have even created dedicated telehealth departments to deal with these decisions. Moreover, during the Covid-19 pandemic, most movement toward telehealth was concentrated in primary care as a way of evaluating potential covid-19 cases. For all these reasons, telehealth adoption has been slow to permeate to the specialty service line level. Many service line leaders feel that telehealth is out of their hands entirely.

2. Telehealth is a replacement for in-person care.

Covid-19 spurred service lines to rapidly implement telehealth on a scale never seen before. Especially during the shutdowns of the spring of 2020, telehealth was the only option for delivering care to patients. Although that is no longer the case, many systems continue to see telehealth as a replacement for in-person visits. Accordingly, these systems invest in and measure the success of telehealth in similar ways to in-person visits, such as by volume or financial performance.


Our take

Through our research and conversations with service line leaders, we have concluded:

1. Service line leaders are imperative in the strategic and operational considerations for telehealth.

Although some decisions may be out of scope for service line leads, these leaders are critical in the implementation of telehealth in specialty care workflows. Compared with system-level executives and members of the C-suite, service line leaders are more familiar with the needs of patients, providers, and staff. This knowledge is crucial in informing and translating the decisions made at executive levels so that telehealth is used to effectively and to the best possible benefit of patients and providers.

2. Telehealth is not a replacement for in-person care.

During a public health emergency, telehealth may be the only option for care delivery. But long term, telehealth should be treated as complementary, not supplementary, to in-person care. Through virtual visits and remote patient monitoring, telehealth can be used in conjunction with in-person visits to enhance early detection, increase access, improve management of chronic conditions, or elevate patient satisfaction. To fully appreciate the additive value of telehealth, service line leaders should pivot their expectations for telehealth away from those for in-person visits, particularly regarding reimbursement.


Five imperatives for servicelines to consider

Applying a strategic lens to telehealth will help you make smarter investment and implementation decisions.

  • Imperative

    Connect telehealth to service line or system goals

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  • Imperative

    Track data to show telehealth performance against goals

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  • Imperative

    Optimize the virtual patient experience

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  • Imperative

    Secure physician buy-in for virtual care

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  • Imperative

    Enfranchise care teams’ role in telehealth

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Parting thoughts

Service line leaders must commit to integrating specialty care telehealth into strategic plans and daily care pathways to realize long-term success. Service lines that decide to invest in telehealth have an opportunity to deliver different-in-kind specialty care that can expand access, improve outcomes, and satisfy patients, providers, and payers.

Covid-19 has clearly demonstrated the versatility of telehealth—including not only virtual visits but also remote patient monitoring and asynchronous modalities. Telehealth is not a problem for providers to solve; it is a new way for providers to solve care delivery problems at scale.

To realize telehealth’s full benefits, service line leaders must relinquish traditional expectations for reimbursement and embrace a value mindset that accounts for factors like improved outcomes and avoidable cost savings. To that end, service line leaders must capture as much telehealth use data as possible. The recent surge in telehealth utilization has generated significant data on which patients and providers are using it, for what needs, and how that utilization impacts downstream interactions and outcomes. That data is essential for both systems and payers in making decisions about appropriate care, clinical best practice, future investment, and reimbursement.

Consumers are already invested in the long-term future of telehealth. A recent Advisory Board survey of consumers indicates that their interest in virtual care has surged for opportunities to solve their own health care challenges, including faster access to care and increased care convenience. To prepare for success in the future, service line leaders and providers should also focus on the opportunity telehealth presents—rather than just the barriers—to address their own strategic objectives.

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