While digital health solutions experienced significant growth throughout the 2010s, few could have predicted the seismic shift to remote healthcare that has been induced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, many telehealth solutions have surpassed expectations in recent months, proving their value as a key component in the effort to bridge the gap between healthcare providers’ offices and clients’ homes.
As the telehealth industry continues to expand, behavioral healthcare services will become increasingly accessible to individuals across the country. But as demand for these services rises, so will the need for healthcare professionals equipped with extensive telehealth skills and experience.
What Is Telehealth in Healthcare?
With the rise of telehealth, many individuals and healthcare professionals are asking, “What exactly is a telehealth practitioner?” Simply put, a telehealth practitioner is a clinician who uses electronic communication of some kind — typically video and audio services — to improve a client’s health. Many behavioral health professionals are using telehealth platforms to provide a wide range of services to their clients, including remote counseling sessions and treatment for substance use disorders.
Despite the diversity in telehealth services, there are a few overarching guidelines that every telehealth practitioner must adhere to. For example, every telehealth practitioner is expected to have an in-depth understanding of the telehealth technology that is relevant to their field and how to use it effectively. Telehealth providers must also be prepared to communicate digitally with members of their practice, train other telehealth providers, and continuously incorporate new telehealth technology into their work.
But perhaps most importantly, telehealth providers must learn how to forge meaningful client-provider connections across the digital divide. As with any healthcare service, telehealth is only successful when a practitioner can provide trusted, friendly, and expert service. When telehealth is conducted effectively, the differences between a remote and an in-person appointment are few.
How Do I Become a Telehealth Provider?
Becoming a telehealth professional of any kind — whether a doctor, counselor, or psychiatrist — begins with taking the same steps required of in-person healthcare providers. Telehealth professionals must complete the education, certifications, and training associated with their respective fields. Once these requirements have been fulfilled, healthcare professionals can start taking the following steps to become a telehealth provider:
- Gain extensive in-person experience. Both telehealth companies and providers’ offices require healthcare professionals to obtain in-person clinical experience before entering the world of telehealth. In fact, many organizations seek to hire candidates who have completed at least four years of in-person practice.
- Get acquainted with the landscape. It’s important to gain a comprehensive understanding of what it’s like to work in telehealth before entering the field full-time. While telehealth professionals work in a capacity very similar to that of their in-person counterparts, some healthcare professionals find remote healthcare difficult to navigate.
From a coverage standpoint, reimbursements for telehealth services are often lower than reimbursements for in-person services. However, telehealth visits are generally better attended than traditional appointments, with significantly fewer last-minute cancellations. Overall, telehealth providers’ salaries are comparable to the salaries of clinicians who provide in-person services.
1. Maximize your reach
Professional licenses are provided on a state-by-state basis, meaning providers are required to earn a new license for each state they practice in. While many of these requirements have been temporarily waived in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth providers looking to maximize the geographic reach of their practice over the long term have two options: practice telehealth in states with compact licensing agreements or become individually licensed in multiple states.
Clinicians who wish to practice telehealth in states outside of their own must partake in each of those respective state’s unique licensing processes. While securing licensure for multiple states in this way is quite common, it is decidedly more complex.
2. Find the right work environment
Telehealth professionals may choose to work for companies that focus exclusively on remote healthcare services or as part of a team within a traditional behavioral healthcare institution. Administrators within both of these environments are responsible for guiding their employees through telehealth equipment requirements and regulations as well as setting continuing education (CE) and training expectations. Administrators can also assist with multistate licensing when necessary.
Some telehealth professionals may also choose to work with more than one provider. Contracting with multiple telehealth services allows these professionals to maximize their client base and expand their reach.
The Value of Telehealth Training Programs
The availability of telehealth training programs for providers has become a crucial factor in the success of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without access to highly effective telehealth education and training, such an abrupt transition to remote care could have easily been fraught with challenges as clinicians quickly adjusted to the new norm.
Telehealth training courses ensure behavioral health professionals can utilize their telehealth platform’s full array of capabilities, avoid common technology pitfalls, build rapport with clients remotely, and remain compliant with telehealth standards and regulations.
Telehealth training is important for every member of an organization, not only clinicians. Administrative assistants responsible for scheduling appointments and contacting clients must be intimately familiar with their organization’s telehealth technology to ensure they can provide every individual with comprehensive telehealth support. All clients must understand the basics of how telehealth platforms work and what to do in the event of a technological issue. By educating individuals in this way, administrative assistants foster more seamless remote sessions for all involved.
- Technology Testing: Testing telehealth technology with a colleague or friend before each remote session allows clinicians to verify that all systems are working smoothly and that they have a strong internet connection. Most telehealth software needs at least a 3 Mbps internet connection to ensure optimal quality.
- Adequate Lighting: Lighting plays an essential role during video appointments. If the practitioner or client is backlit, it will be difficult for the other participant to gauge their facial responses.
- Camera Placement: Forming and/or maintaining a strong client-practitioner relationship remotely can be challenging. To ensure remote sessions feel as close as possible to in-person appointments, eye contact is key. It’s important for practitioners to pay close attention to the placement of their cameras to ensure they maintain direct eye contact for the duration of the appointment.
Putting Telehealth Clinical Protocols Into Place
Administrators must establish a clear set of telehealth clinical protocols that help guide their teams through the telehealth process. Every behavioral health organization is unique, and it’s up to leaders to identify the telehealth technology and processes that are right for their employees and the clients they serve. An established set of protocols will provide guidelines for:
- Implementation: While telehealth is a cost-effective and convenient way to provide clients with high-quality care, it is not a perfect fit for every treatment plan, clinical condition, and client. It’s important for all organizations to identify telehealth implementation guidelines that clarify when telehealth should and should not be implemented.
- Clinical Quality: Client satisfaction is a crucial element in the success of any organization. To ensure clients receive the same level of care remotely that they would receive in person, administrators must detail quality expectations for their staff.
- Training Requirements: Telehealth protocols can directly influence the telehealth training and CE requirements an organization puts into place. Some protocols may require all staff members to partake in routine webinars and training courses, while others may take a less structured approach.
Next Steps in Telehealth Education
As the demand for telehealth continues to increase, new opportunities will arise for behavioral health professionals interested in stepping into the world of telehealth in a greater capacity. But healthcare professionals aren’t the only ones reaping the benefits of the digital era.
Since its creation, telehealth has played a key role in expanding access to behavioral healthcare in underserved communities. For many individuals living in rural areas, long drives to the clinic mean fewer visits. This can result in preventable emergencies that exacerbate existing conditions.
The advancement of telebehavioral health, including remote substance use counseling services, has also benefited many individuals, allowing them to receive the critical care they need from anywhere, at any time of the day. For these individuals and countless others, the convenience of telehealth is hard to beat.
To remain prepared for the future of telehealth in a post-COVID-19 world, behavioral health providers across the country should commit to proactive telehealth education. Telehealth training for behavioral health professionals is an affordable and effective way to ensure all providers have the skills they need to provide high-quality care from afar.
Prepare Your Providers Today
Telehealth shows no signs of disappearing in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. With its unique ability to improve access to healthcare for millions of individuals across the country, telehealth is here to stay.
Administrators unsure of how best to establish a telehealth system need access to robust, accurate information. With the right information in hand, these professionals can set their organizations up for long-term success.