By Guy Henggeler, Vice President Product Management, Development and Strategy for VirtuMedix at Comtech Telecommunications Corp. and Dr. Bobby Park, MD at WEPPA
Emergency rooms and urgent care practices are busier than ever. The Affordable Care Act has inarguably created the increase in patients seeking services and, as a result, more patients will use the ER as a place to receive after-hours care. Additionally, patients use the ER and urgent care practices for illnesses or injuries that could be treated without creating additional foot traffic. Often times, doctors treat common and less urgent illnesses such as sore throats, ear pain or fevers when 40 percent of these visits could be handled outside of the traditional clinic setting.
To meet this rising demand for urgent care, the technology industry has responded with virtual care or telehealth models that provide doctors with alternative tools for treatment. Telehealth consultations can help patients understand the severity of their condition and what immediate actions to take before rushing into the emergency room or accessing acute care services. However, patient adoption of telehealth is lagging. A recent HealthMine survey found 41 percent of consumers have never heard of telemedicine before and only 9 percent have used a telehealth service before.
What can providers do to change this and establish telehealth as a viable resource for patients while expanding their practice and service offerings? There are simple ways to encourage the adoption of telehealth for acute care providers. Doctors are the foundation of this change. By following the steps outlined below, doctors will not only encourage their patients to feel comfortable using virtual care, they will grow their practices by:
- seeing more patients
- building relationships with emergency physicians and urgent care practices in their community
- promoting better health habits
- providing more access to healthcare professionals
Expanding The Practice: Caregivers Are Business Owners
Physicians must first modify their own thinking and develop a business mentality. Providers cannot take a “build it and they will come” approach to using technology to expand their reach beyond their brick-and-mortar clinics. Physicians must understand the importance of increasing staff for both traditional visits as well as their virtual care services. Focusing on staffing requirements will not only increase patient satisfaction, it will help drive the bottom line and offset physician burnout.
An additional aspect of this business mentality is emphasizing the significance of marketing. Building brand and service awareness locally will increase the flow of patients, bolster revenue and extend the reach to offer services statewide. Effective marketing strategies such as educating and informing patients and surrounding populations about these expanded services as well as their utility in managing their health are crucial to success.
Think about the average patient’s doctor. At some point before a patient experiences any serious symptoms, his or her doctor has to educate the patient about the telehealth options available to him or her. When the patient actually has a need for emergency care, they do not have to waste time thinking about the best way to seek medical attention. After having a positive experience using telehealth, the patient is more likely to view the technology as a trusted resource and expound to others about the benefits.
Focusing On The Community
Reaching new patient audiences can come directly from the workforce and engaging employers. Tower Watson projects 71 percent of employers will offer urgent care services by 2017. Driving this change could be patient age and familiarity with online applications, as well as aforementioned Affordable Care Act entrants and insurance companies seeking to lower costs. Community outreach, especially to employers, is an important driver to assist provider groups with the expansion beyond their physical practices. By engaging employers, doctors are accessing a direct patient population that will be incentivized for utilizing their services.
There are several methods doctors can use to conduct outreach to entice employers to offer urgent care services for their companies. To reach local employers in the community, effective strategies include:
- utilizing chambers of commerce
- attending health fairs
- targeted and active social media efforts
- direct marketing
Local chambers of commerce and health fairs have the goals of fostering economic growth and raising awareness for business partners, among many other initiatives. These groups provide a setting for doctors to reach employers in a face to face manner and form immediate connections. For non-face to face connections, the critical channels for outreach reside online.
Social media and direct marketing strategies can be surprisingly effective, particularly with today’s largest generation — millennials. A Salesforce report about connected patients shows 60 percent of millennials support the use of telehealth options and 71 percent would like their doctor to use a mobile app.
Social media channels like Facebook and Twitter provide fast and convenient platforms for reaching the younger, connected generation. In a study from the Penn Social Media & Health Innovation Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, 71 percent of patients in the University of Pennsylvania Health System who were involved in the study consented to share their social media activity and have it compared with their electronic medical records. Students actually felt comforted knowing their health was being monitored and recognized the value of sharing their information.
Becoming Thought Leaders And Valuable Resources
As physician groups increase their marketing efforts, they will be seen as trusted providers in the community, and maximize that leadership role to encourage the adoption of virtual care. Doctors who have built a foundation of trust with local communities will be able to promote telehealth’s extensive benefits, particularly for emergency care. If properly marketed, confusion about emergency telemedicine and how it can be utilized should improve.
Ultimately, providers and caregivers need viable, cost-effective alternatives to traditional brick-and-mortar care models. Early adopter physicians who understand the benefits of virtual care can leverage these tools in their practice to expand their reach, while being viewed as doctors who care about their patient population and health outcomes.
Caregivers who value the importance of telehealth tools will be able to diagnose and provide the best urgent care possible. There is a lesson to be learned from the benefits of virtual care. Doctors have the power and capability to get that conversation started.