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Healthcare Execs Call Telehealth a Priority, But Are Still Reluctant

A Sage Growth Partners study finds that health system executives place a high priority on launching telehealth and telemedicine programs, but they're still weighed down by defining ROI.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Healthcare is inundated with surveys indicating health systems have launched a telehealth or telemedicine service or are planning on doing so. One of the latest finds that health system executives see the technology as a priority.

That they haven’t launched a telehealth or telemedicine service, however, indicates they’re still wary of a return on investment.

Conducted by Sage Growth Partners, a Baltimore-based healthcare research firm, in advance of next week’s Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society conference in Las Vegas, the survey of some 100 healthcare decision-makers finds that 57 percent have already launched a telehealth or telemedicine platform – almost evenly split between providers launching their own service and those working with a vendor.

Of the other 44 percent, Sage reported, 24 percent are actively researching the market and 20 percent “are just beginning to learn what is out there.” And 86 percent place telemedicine or telehealth as a medium or high priority.

So why haven’t they done anything yet?

READ MORE: What Telemedicine, Telehealth Resource Centers Offer to Providers

The answer may lie in ROI. According to the Sage survey, three-quarters expect to see a positive return on investment in a telehealth or telemedicine platform within three years. Yet few – only 9 percent – expect virtual visits to make up at least one quarter of their patient encounters, and almost 80 percent say virtual services will contribute less than 15 percent to their total revenue within that time.

The survey’s results point to the continuing challenge of finding value in telemedicine and telehealth at a time when healthcare is still primarily episodic and based on use rather than outcomes.

Dan D’Orazio, the company’s CEO, says the strong interest in telemedicine and telehealth holds promise for the industry’s growth. But those making the decisions on digital health expenditures need more of a nudge.

“There has been an incredible amount of hype around telemedicine,” he said in a press release accompanying the survey. “Our survey reveals that, despite its potential to transform many critical areas of care, more than two in five organizations have not yet adopted telemedicine. And for those hospitals and health systems that have made the leap, their budgets are still modest.”

According to the Sage survey, two-thirds have budgeted $250,000 or less for telehealth and telemedicine, while one-quarter have budgeted between $250,000 and $1 million and 9 percent have set aside more than $1 million. Nearly three-quarters expect their budgets to increase next year, though a majority (59 percent) only expect a boost of 25 percent or less.

READ MORE: NETRC Conference: Telehealth on the Path to Mainstream Adoption

That very few see telehealth dominating their patient encounters indicates healthcare executives value the platform for improving access to existing services – especially emergency care and specialist services like behavioral healthcare.

High on executives’ wish lists is remote patient monitoring and home-based care – though only 21 percent now have RPM programs and only 4 percent use the technology for post-acute specialty care. Three-quarters of those surveyed say they want to use telemedicine to connect with patients at home.

“Reimbursement and regulatory issues have been a huge factor in slowing the adoption of telemedicine, but a lot can change, and quickly,” D’Orazio added. “Having [the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] increase its reimbursement for telehealth would significantly accelerate its implementation. The value that telemedicine can deliver is clear to healthcare executives, but they must see a return on investment before they will increase their investments from modest to meaningful.”

Among other take-aways in the Sage survey:

  • Three-quarters of those surveyed say telemedicine and telehealth have the potential to improve the standard of care for behavioral health and psychiatry, while just more than half see that potential in primary care and neurology and just under 50 percent see the potential in cardiology. Seventy percent, meanwhile, believes that has already happened in stroke care.
  • Telemedicine platforms are most often used for emergency cases in the hospital (29 percent), while non-emergency cases make up one-fifth of the active platforms. Almost 70 percent want to use the technology in outpatient clinics and to deliver primary care over smartphones.
  • The most important aspects of a telehealth or telemedicine platform, according to those making the decisions, is HIPAA compliance, at 92 percent, followed by high-quality audio and video resolution (74 percent), reliable connectivity (70 percent), round-the-clock tech support (70 percent), ease of use and single sign-on (69 percent ) and EMR integration (67 percent).
  • The least important aspects, meanwhile, are smartphone apps for patient-initiated consults (19 percent), assistance with provider shortages (16 percent) and clinical and operational workflow (8 percent). Those last two choices are interesting, considering that many new telehealth and telemedicine services are presented as helping address the national shortage of providers and helping providers improve their workflows.

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