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 E-Patient Update:  The Impact Of Telehealth Confusion

Posted on January 27, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

I am a huge fan of telemedicine consults. As far as I can tell, all of the chronic conditions I currently cope with can be addressed effectively by a virtual visit unless I’m in a medical crisis.

My reasons are not unusual. Like most people, I hate having to drive to a doctor’s office if I’m already feeling yucky, particularly if it’s not necessary. And since time is money – particularly when you work for yourself like me – there’s some material benefits to telehealth too. Not only that, since I’m a tech fan who lives online, these contacts “feel” as real as face-to-face visits, so I don’t have lingering doubts that I’m not getting much for my money.

Getting a quick visit in regarding an acute medical issue (like, say, a sinus infection) has been pretty easy and relatively affordable as well. But reaching out to a new specialist – or even connecting with my existing providers — is another story. Over the last several months, I’ve encountered a number of barriers which seem to be fairly entrenched in the system.

Garbage contact info

Over the last year, I’ve been with two major health insurers (CIGNA and United Healthcare) whose databases included a list of specialists which were allegedly willing to do telehealth consults. But as it turns out, actually moving ahead with such visits has been impossible.

At one point, I decided to go all out and see if I could actually schedule a telehealth visit with one type of specialist I need. Armed with a list of providers who were supposedly up for it, I called perhaps 15 or 20 offices to see how I could schedule my first virtual visit. But I got nowhere. Most of the physicians simply never returned my calls, and in the rare cases where I got a live person, they had no idea what I was talking about.

I’m assuming that this happened because the doctors had the option to check a “telemedicine” box if they were generally interested in implementing it, and that few if any had actually gone ahead with their plans. But I’m still very annoyed with the whole thing. Sure, insurers don’t have perfect information on hand at any given moment, but isn’t in their interests to steer patients to less-expensive telehealth services if they’re available?

Coverage confusion

Another thing that astonishes me is that while I allegedly have telemedicine coverage via my current insurer (CIGNA) I can’t find anyone who has the slightest idea of how I should use it!  I have called CIGNA’s call center four or five times in an attempt to straighten this out, but none of the reps I spoke with had a clue as to which providers were covered by my policy, if any, and under what circumstances.

At some point, telemedicine coverage will be known as “coverage,” of course. There’s really no reason to segment it out into a separate category if you’re going to pay for it anyway. But at present, if CIGNA is any indication, there’s still some confusion around how and when coverage is even applicable. I can’t understand it, but I can attest to you that such foolishness is a Real Thing.

Launch fears

The other problem I’ve encountered is that while medical practices may have the technical capability to deploy telemedicine, they seem afraid to do so. I’ve asked many of my doctors (and their staff) what it will take for them to begin offering virtual visits, and I’ve gotten a mix of confusion and concern. None, even for example the fairly large and seemingly well-funded PCP office I visit, appears to be anywhere close to rolling out such services.

I can’t prove it, but my sense is that two things are going on here. First, I sense that practice leaders don’t feel ready to take on the technical challenges involved in supporting virtual visits. Though my guess is that security is the only real issue — which can be addressed by using the right vendor — they seem quite timid about even experimenting with this approach. Second, I am pretty sure they’re not sure how to handle billing, or alternatively, what to charge if they don’t bill insurance.

I admit their concerns are reality-based. But I’d argue that the benefits of offering telehealth far outweigh these concerns. Apparently, my doctors don’t agree just yet.

Ultimately, I think we’d all agree that telemedicine uptake will grow by leaps and bounds over the next several years. But it seems we’ll have to deal with a lot of administrivia before that can happen.

One Example Of An Enterprise Telehealth System

Posted on August 30, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

While there’s a lot of talk about how telehealth visits need to be integrated with EMRs, I’m not aware of any well thought-out model for doing so. In the absence of such standardized models, I thought it worth looking at the approach taken by American Well, one of a growing list of telehealth firms which are not owned by a pre-existing provider organization. (Other examples of such telemedicine companies include MD Live, Teladoc and Doctor on Demand.)

American Well is now working with more than 170 health plans and health systems to streamline and integrate the telehealth process with provider workflows. To support these partners, it has created an enterprise telehealth platform designed to connect with providers’ clinical information systems, according to Craig Bagley, director of sales engineering for the firm.

Bagley, who recently hosted a webinar on EMR/telehealth integration for AW, said its system was designed to let providers offer telehealth consults labeled with their own brand name. Using its system, patients move through as follows, he said:

  • First, new patients sign up and enter their insurance information and demographics, which are entered into AW’s system.
  • Next, they are automatically connected to the provider’s EMR system. At that point, they can review their clinical history, schedule visits and get notifications. They can also contact their doctor(s).
  • At this point, they enter the telehealth system’s virtual “waiting room.” Behind the scenes, doctors can view the patients who are in the waiting room, and if they click on a patient name, they can review patient information collected from the EMR, as well as the reason for the visit.

Now, I’m not presenting this model as perfect. Ultimately, providers will need their EMR vendors to support virtual visits directly, and find ways to characterize and store the video content generated by such visits as well. This is becoming steadily more important as telemedicine deployments hit their stride in provider organizations.

True, it looks like AW’s approach helps providers move in this direction, but only somewhat. While it may do a good job of connecting patients and physicians to existing clinical information, it doesn’t sound as though it actually does “integrate” notes from the telehealth consult in any meaningful way.

Not only that, there are definitely security questions that might arise when considering a rollout of this technology. To be fair, I’m not privy to the details of how AW’s platform is deployed, but there’s always HIPAA concerns that come up when an outside vendor like AW interacts with your EMR. Of course, you may be handing off clinical information to far less healthcare-focused vendors under some business associate contracts, but still, it’s a consideration.

And no matter how elegant AW’s workaround is – if “workaround” is a fair word – it’s still not enough yet. It’s going to be a while before players in this category serve as any kind of a substitute for EMR-based conferencing technology which can document such visits dynamically.

Nonetheless, I was interested to see where AW is headed. It looks like we’re just at the start of the enterprise-level telemedicine system, but it’s still a much-needed step.

E-Patient Update: Video Visits Need EMR Support

Posted on July 11, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

From what I’ve read, many providers would like to deliver telemedicine consults through their EMR platform. This makes sense, as doing so would probably include the ability to document such visits in the same way as face-to-face encounters. It would also make it far easier to merge notes from telehealth visits into existing records of traditional care.

Unfortunately, there’s little reason to believe that this will be possible anytime soon. If nothing else, vendors won’t face too much pressure from providers until the health insurers routinely pay for such care. Or one could argue that until providers are living on value-based care models, they have little incentive to aggressively push care to lower-cost channels like telemedicine. Either way, EMR vendors aren’t likely to focus on this issue in the near term.

But I’d argue that providers have strong reasons to add EMR support to their telemedicine efforts. If they don’t take the bull by the horns now, and train patients to see video visits as legitimate and worthwhile, they are unlikely to leverage telehealth fully when it becomes central to the delivery of care. And that means, in part, that providers must document video consults and integrate that data into their EMR anyway they can. After all, patients are already beginning to understand that it data doesn’t appear in their electronic record, it probably isn’t important to their health.

It seems to me that the lagging EMR support for telemedicine visits springs in part from how they grew up. Just the other day, I had a video visit with a primary care doc working for one of the major direct-to-consumer telehealth services. And his comments gave me some insight into how this issue has evolved.

As sometimes happens, I ended up straying from discussion of my health needs to comment on HIT issues with the visit, notably to complain about the fact that I had to reenter my long list of daily meds every time I sought help from that service. He agreed that it was a problem, but also pointed out that the service’s founders have assumed that their users would almost exclusively be seeking one-off urgent care. In fact, he noted, none of the data collected during the visit is formatted in a way that can be digested easily by an EMR, another result of the assumption that clients would not need a longitudinal record of their telemedical care.

Admittedly, this service is in a different business than hospital or ambulatory care providers with a substantial brick-and-mortar presence. But my guess is that the assumptions upon which the direct-to-consumer businesses were founded are still shared by some traditional providers.

As a patient, I urge providers to give serious thought to better documenting telehealth today, rather than waiting for the vendors to get their act together on that front. If your clinicians are managing relationships by a video visits today, they will be soon. And when that happens I want a coherent record of my digital care to be available. Letting all that data fall through the cracks just doesn’t make sense.