By | July 13, 2017

What do you think standard mental health care or general health care will look like within the next five years?

While the standard visit to see a psychiatrist or practitioner in an office will continue, the demand for telehealth and telepsychiatry will increase. According to Advisory Board’s 2016 Telehealth Survey, physical and mental health practitioners increased their concern regarding telehealth in the near future by 18 percent since 2015. This means nearly one-fifth of existing practices and health-based organizations are shifting focus to emphasize telehealth adoption and best practices.

Unfortunately, telehealth remains in infancy in relation to how most practices understand it. In other words, individuals, practitioners, and entire organizations remain uncertain as to how to best achieve a working, secure, and cost-effective way to provide telehealth services. After following the key considerations prior to implementing a telehealth program, discussed in Part I, your organization should utilize these best practices to make your program the best it can be.

1. Assess Your Current Systems.

telehealth system is only as good as its weakest link, and for health care entities considering implementing such a program, you need a strong, organization-wide assessment of your existing systems. Determine what type of electronic health record (EHR) systems are in place and their ease of use in a telehealth system.

For example, can any physician, practitioner, or other employees in your organization access information in the system, and if so, can this information be accessed remotely?

While this may seem superfluous, remote access of EHRs is essential to making a telehealth system profitable and cost effective. You need to have the capacity to bring in physicians, psychologists, social workers, case managers, therapists, or other individuals to address the needs of the person served.

2. Launch a Pilot Program.

Much like a sitcom, you need to know if your telehealth program will be a “hit.” However, you do not have the luxury of canceling a program, especially if your state is one of the 29 states that now require that health insurers cover telehealth services, reports Becker’s Health IT & CIO Review. Your pilot program, asserts Adam Levy of Medical Economics, should have the following characteristics:

  • It needs to be small. For example, launch the program for a specialized type of care in your organization, like individuals suffering from depression.
  • Properly train and staff individuals to work the pilot program.
  • Track and document both positive and negative experiences of staff members working in the program.
  • Use information, like peak usage times and issues or problems in service delivery, to improve the program before expansion.

Next, you will expand the program to subsequent departments while following the same pilot-program protocols established. This ensures a smooth, system-wide deployment.

3. Prioritize Use Cases.

Once you achieve system-wide implementation, you need to begin prioritizing use cases. In other words, how will you determine which individuals with health needs go to what departments?

For instance, will quick, drop-down menus in user portals enable proper routing? If not, you will be faced with an ongoing game of “telehealth operator.” As a result of this concern, working with a vendor may be a solution for prioritizing use cases.

Another aspect of use prioritization requires careful consideration of both ethical and logistical service delivery. Will persons served feel comfortable sharing information via the internet? Moreover, a visit through a telehealth portal may necessitate a subsequent referral to an in-office practitioner. Given the sensitive nature of mental health care, especially when caring for those with emergency-defining symptoms, including suicidal or homicidal thoughts or actions, your system and team must understand prioritization.

Any case requiring immediate medical intervention, including crises, should trigger a series of events to ensure the safety of the person using the system, those around him or her, and the health care practitioners on the facility side. This may include transferring information to emergency medical services (EMS), social services, judicial entities, and beyond. All information transferred must meet the “need-to-know” criteria set forth by HIPAA.

4. Provide Training, and Create Routine Workflows.

Prioritization naturally leads into the need for routine workflows and pre-determined responses. Your team members need to know what, if any, practice limits exist with each user-practitioner interaction. Thus, it is imperative training be given the utmost priority for all staff members engaged in the telehealth program.

Even the best training programs cannot prepare your team members for everything, but a few tips can help team members stay ready for anything. These tips include the following:

  • Using flow charts, graphs, and other visual aides to direct the conversation, consultation, or visit through the system
  • Recording systems to ensure all visits have an accurate account of the interaction, an essential best practice for all providers working with individuals receiving mental health services
  • Increasing training frequency for employees working in telehealth
  • Rotation of assigned employees (While a dedicated telehealth team may be appropriate, it is important to cross-train other employees to take on the duties of telehealth providers to meet peak demand.)

5. Create an Adoption Program.

How will your organization get the word out about your telehealth system? You must focus on using a multimedia approach, meaning, disseminate information about your program through all mediums. In other words, you need to create an adoption and engagement program for telehealth systems.

Your adoption and engagement program should use social channels to spread the word among online groups related to your services.

For example, mental health service providers may post updates in local Facebook groups, where allowed, about new telehealth or telepsychiatry services. Alternatively, care providers working with chronic conditions might post in groups related to increased blood pressure or relieving chronic stress.

Create other media content, like SlideShare presentations or short YouTube videos, to announce a telehealth system. These options reflect some of the low-cost, if not cost-free, ways to make your program visible. Alternatively, sponsor local events relating to your services with the telehealth message and information included.

Every interaction with your community is an opportunity to increase telehealth adoption rates. Emphasize your system’s ability to address real-world concerns for persons served, like immediate, hassle-free access to care, self-management of chronic conditions, better coordination with personal schedules, and system integration with other caregivers in your area, reports

6. Request Feedback From System Users.

The primary goal of telehealth remains easier access to health care. But you cannot assess how “easy” your program is without obtaining feedback from its users. Ask all individuals served through your program about their opinions, issues, and general feedback. This will enable adjustments and growth of your system and capacity to provide telehealth care.

Any surveys or post-care questionnaires should be short and capture critical information about the “visit.” Standard questions should include the following:

  • Were your questions answered during the visit?
  • Did you require a prescription?
  • Was the provider able to meet your needs?
  • Did you schedule a follow-up visit through the telehealth system?
  • Would you recommend telehealth services to others?
  • On a scale of 1–10, how would you rate our service (10 being the best)?

What’s Next?

Telehealth will revolutionize how Americans access health care, and its impact will dominate areas typically underserved. Specifically, individuals with mental health conditions or other chronic diseases will be able to benefit most from telehealth as it becomes a greater, nationwide trend, reports Healthcare Finance.

To plan for a telehealth future in your organization, you need to start exploring your options. Make sure all necessary training requirements are current, and prepare your team for a telehealth future by following these best practices. In combination with the key considerations in Part I, you can make your organization’s telehealth program successful.

Jason Vanover

Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

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