Hospitals Plan for Telehealth Expansion Despite Declining Use

Telehealth use has declined since the country has seemingly left the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic behind; however, healthcare organizations are still considering telehealth expansion to increase patient access to affordable, quality care.  That is the take-away from a recent survey conducted by the University of Pittsburg Medical Center (UPMC) founded Center for Connected Medicine (CCM) and KLAS (*) Research, conducted between May and June of 2021, prior to the COVID-19 Delta variant surge.  (*)  KLAS is a healthcare IT research firm that provides the definitive ranking of vendors in the industry – its the trusted go-to guide for home healthcare executives making buying decisions for new technology.

Of the almost 100 responses, more than 80 percent of hospitals and health systems reported that telehealth visits comprised 20 percent or less of their total appointments during the two-month span.  And the 18 percent of hospitals that conducted more than 30 percent of their appointments virtually said they expect a decrease in virtual visits as the country transitions to post-pandemic times.  However, they are still interested in expanding telehealth services.  Telehealth use for primary care remains popular, and more than half of the respondents are looking to expand their platforms for chronic care management, behavioral healthcare, and urgent care telehealth.

Virtual chronic care management services may give patients more consistent care, while urgent care telehealth could help reduce the high costs that patients typically face for in-person visits, according to the report.  “Telemedicine is an important technology for advancing care and improving value at health systems,” Rob Bart, MD, UPMC’s Chief Medical Information Officer, said in a press release.  “While utilization has declined compared with pandemic highs of 2020, we continue to invest in our telehealth capabilities because it is the right thing to do for our communities.”

More health systems are now tracking certain metrics of telehealth which may aid in determining the future of their programs.  The majority of health systems (92 percent) are tracking visit volumes, and 80 percent are measuring patient satisfaction.  These factors are vital to proving the value of connected health in the future.

The CCM report also found that patient portals are the most common way through which patients participate in virtual care.  If providers turned their focus to the digital front door, it could potentially increase telehealth use overall.  Patient portals often improve patient-provider relationships and enhance care coordination, which in turn could increase patient satisfaction levels and boost telehealth success for hospitals.

More than one (1) in three (3) respondents reported that telehealth has improved their value-based care program by increasing access to care for patients, researchers noted.  This could potentially sway health systems to expand their telehealth services, as many organizations are shifting away from fee-for-service programs.  Although health systems are eager to expand telehealth despite dwindling patient use, there are still barriers that may stand in the way of advancement.  More than half of the survey respondents (65 percent) identified patients’ access to technology as the top challenge to expanding telehealth, and 43 percent reported rural broadband access as an obstacle.  Grant funding and government intervention could help overcome this barrier, the CCM report noted.

Clinical workflows and EHR integration were an obstacle for about half of the health systems, with about a quarter reporting that their telehealth technologies were poorly integrated into the overall health system.  More than half of the hospitals surveyed also cited reimbursement as an issue.

The CCM report highlighted how low use rates and continued barriers may work against telehealth advancement; however, it also revealed that many health systems intend to expand their programs in the future, giving hope to post-pandemic telehealth.


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