Medical Groups Adopting Telehealth, But Cautiously

Posted on February 5, 2018 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.

Telehealth has gone from a neat idea to an accepted part of the spectrum of care. However, it’s largely been hospitals, not doctors, which have dived into telemedicine wholeheartedly

Recent data suggests that while doctors are gradually adopting telecare, they have many reservations about doing so. A study published last year by Reaction Data found that while 68% of physicians said they were in favor of telemedicine, most were using it only in special situations such as reaching patients in rural areas, visit follow-ups and managing specific patient populations.

A new survey by the Medical Group Management Association has reached a similar conclusion. In a poll conducted last month by the trade group, the MGMA found medical practices’ approaches to telemedicine have changed only marginally since January of last year.

In this year’s Stat poll, which had 1,292 respondents, 26% of respondents said their organization offered telehealth services, and another 15% said they planned to offer them in the future. That’s up only 3% from January 2017 research, which found that 23% of respondents provided such services and 18% planned to add them.

Meanwhile, two key statistics have stayed in place from last year. Thirty-nine percent of respondents to this year’s survey said they didn’t offer telehealth services and 20% weren’t sure if they would, the same percentages found in last year’s research.

When it announced the results, MGMA shared some specific suggestions for planning and implementing a telehealth program. They include:

  • Researching and understanding patient needs
  • Setting clear goals for telehealth and tying them to an existing strategic plan, which demands fewer organizational changes and speeds adoption
  • Understanding how telehealth supports value-based care
  • Researching telehealth vendors and platforms
  • Researching reimbursement and licensure requirements (if any) in the practice environment
  • Engaging and educating practice staff members on telehealth issues and strategies
  • Having doctors reach out to colleagues in their specialty to learn how their telehealth implementation experience has gone
  • Bearing in mind that telehealth implementations typically take an average of one year from plan to rollout

All that being said, it seems likely that some of the practices which are hanging back from telehealth have taken most or even all of the steps outlined above. The thing is, even if a practice has researched the telemedicine market, understands its patients’ needs and knows what issues it will face during a service rollout, these steps still can’t address some of the fundamental realities holding telehealth back today.

The truth is, from what I’ve seen medical practices still face two difficult issues when they consider telehealth seriously: how to make money at it and how to fit it into their workflow. These are major problems and won’t be resolved by advice alone (not that this is MGMA’s fault of course).

Despite medical groups’ concerns, there will doubtless be a tipping point where practices begin to see telehealth services as a routine part of what they provide. However, it seems clear that we’re far from getting there.