Telehealth has surged in adoption through the Coronavirus pandemic. However, it’s interesting the technology isn’t new: platforms for digital visits have existed for decades, originally deployed to help hospitals reach patients who lived in remote or rural locations. In recent years, advances in smart phones and videoconferencing have allowed a greater level of engagement between patient and doctor. But faced with potential regulatory and privacy concerns (not to mention billing issues), telehealth adoption was low in the pre-COVID 19 world. That all changed a few weeks ago – and there’s no going back.
COVID-19 strained the capacity of hospitals across the country, particularly in the big systems in New York City. At the same time, social distancing guidelines made it much harder for people to visit the doctor. Offering a convenient, easy-to-use alternative, telemedicine stepped into the fray, bolstered by $200 million of federal funding, with the number of patients talking to their doctor via video conference setting records.
When the pandemic comes to an end, I believe this convenient and intuitive approach to tech will set a new expectation among patients, and telemedicine adoption will remain high. The entire health care industry can realize an important truth in this rapid adoption and patient response: this will change how patients think about interacting with their doctor and health system across each step in their care journey, including how they pay for that care.
Embracing a new normal
For many patients, COVID-19 fears drove them to their first digital health care experience. There is a lot to like, including appointments on demand from the comfort of your own home. Many of the situations that prompt a visit to a general practitioner or an urgent care ward can be resolved with a simple conversation for reassurance, whether it is a rash on your foot or your kid’s bloodied nose after a tumble down the stairs. Millions of doctor’s appointments and patient interactions per year will move 100% online, from scheduling to talking to the doctor.
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It’s also undeniable that some patients value the personal, face-to-face interaction with their providers in order to feel healthy. As providers and patients navigate this new platform, there are realizations of the limits and interactions telemedicine will never be able to support, not least of which is surgery.
Most health systems have asked patients to reschedule non-urgent and elective procedures (and rightly so). When the pandemic finally wanes, there will be a tidal wave of patients looking to rebook these procedures. Most health systems simply aren’t set up for this kind of surge of communication with thousands of patients simultaneously.
Digital to scale
The only way that health systems can handle this surge in the level of patient requests is by deploying digital channels, like they did with telehealth. Health systems will have to be responsive in the relatively unfamiliar territory of patient communication portals, live chat, self scheduling, and secure text capabilities, all supported outside of traditional working hours, when patient engagement is higher. If done correctly, this will likely mean much happier patients, as the convenience factor will increase the number of patients who self service and decrease strain on health system staff.
Growing more comfortable with self-service features, many patients may ask: why should convenience stop when it comes to payment? Doctors can do a portion of their work via a Zoom call, so why should patients have to wait for a bill to arrive via traditional mail or go to the post office to send a check? Many will be hoping for – if not expecting – to receive their estimate of services on the same screen where they book their appointments. Modern technology can also support payment against that estimate. Payment at time of digital interaction is table stakes if you work in e-commerce or financial services. However, it remains a huge mindshift for a disparate health care billing system that still relies largely on antiquated technology, developed years ago.
Digital opportunity at scale
There is no question this crisis poses a current and future challenge to health care financial leaders and CFOs. Health care moves cautiously by design–navigating complex regulatory and compliance laws. But it’s also true that more convenient, flexible care and payment options can help more patients receive both their care and their payment options in a digital world, leading to happier, healthier patients and higher collection rates for health systems.
This will be crucial over the next several months. Health system staff, especially revenue cycle teams, will continue to have limited bandwidth post-pandemic and need to be remote in their working. There will likely be an influx in patient calls about billing questions. Though the current trend is to waive out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 testing and treatment, many patients have been significantly impacted financially from the pandemic, having lost their job or had their hours cut, which means demand for affordable monthly payment options will increase. To address this demand in a way that’s scalable, patients should be able to access flexible, self-service payment options online.
We all know that when it comes to talking openly about personal finances, particularly regarding health care bills, many patients would prefer to avoid a live conversation admitting their inability to pay. However, many patients would consider their options via a portal, without so much as a phone call. If health systems can offer financing or payment plans to patients via digital communications – as you can when paying a cell phone bill – more patients can sign up for payment options they can afford.
The COVID-19 necessity
It could be understandable if health care systems do not want to think about innovation right now, given they are in the midst of one of the most cataclysmic health care events of the last century. The doctors, nurses and other clinical staff who are battling the historic COVID-19 pandemic on the frontlines are true heroes. It’s impossible to express enough gratitude for their life-saving work. This virus has impacted everyone, in virtually every industry, at the same time. This proves the health of our communities — whether physical, financial or even mental — are all inextricably linked and we must be collectively aware of these interdependencies. We must think about innovative solutions to meet patient expectations in a post COVID-19 world.
The fact is that providers will have little choice but to embrace telemedicine, digital communications, and the payment options that will be alongside these. At the time I write this, more than 1 in 10 members of the U.S. workforce have lost their job in the last month. The economic pain will be felt from coast to coast. If health care systems want to serve their patients, they will have little choice but to embrace digital options in every sector of their patient interaction.