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Telehealth Experts at ATA: Direct-to-Consumer Care Takes Time

A panel of healthcare providers at the American Telemedicine Association's Telehealth 2.0 conference said a direct-to-consumer telehealth platform takes time to grow, if it's planned right.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Executives from three of the nation’s best-known telemedicine networks offered advice this weekend on how to set up a direct-to-consumer telehealth platform.

First and foremost, they said, don’t expect consumers to come calling all at once.

“You’re definitely going to be underwhelmed before you’re going to be overwhelmed,” said Shayan Vyas, MD, medical director of telemedicine for the Nemours Children’s Hospital, which launched its CareConnect service in 2015.

Vyas, moderating a panel discussion at the American Telemedicine Association’s Telehealth 2.0 conference and exhibition Sunday in Orlando, agreed with executives from Intermountain Healthcare and the Cleveland Clinic that a direct-to-consumer platform takes time to take root. Indeed, many surveys – including one put out by Nemours this weekend – have found that consumers are intrigued by the idea of virtual visits and would try them, but fewer than half have actually done that yet.

“Utilization does take time,” agreed Peter Antall, founder and chief medical officer of the Online Care Group at American Well, one of the nation’s largest telehealth providers and a partner in platforms launched by Nemours, Intermountain and the Cleveland Clinic. Healthcare providers launching new telehealth platforms, he said, should expect anywhere between 5 percent and 30 percent of their patient population to move to digital health at the onset.

That’s not to say direct-to-consumer telemedicine isn’t working. Health systems across the country are adopting online platforms at a record pace this year, but the rate of patient participation within those programs is slow – in some cases, just a handful of visitors during the first few weeks or months. It takes time to convince people to try something different.

Matthew Faiman, MD, medical director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Express Care Online service, said health systems are recognizing they need to launch an online platform. All those surveys may indicate few people are using telehealth now, but the number interested in the service is much higher.

“This is an opportunity that we are all taking,” he said. “We want to stay current with consumer expectations.”

“This is incredibly valuable to patients,” added Antall.

Another piece of advice from the experts: Hire experienced staff who can focus on the telehealth service and do the job well. Patients don’t want to deal with a doctor or nurse who is learning on the job or dividing his or her time between virtual care and other projects.

“You shouldn’t hire for a telehealth program someone you wouldn’t want to see in person,” said Will Daines, MD, medical director of Intermountain’s Connect Care service. He said Intermountain started off by hiring or promoting advanced practice clinicians familiar with telehealth “so they can get on top of the learning curve very quickly.”

That goes for specialty care platforms as well. Carey Officer, director of service delivery innovation at Nemours, said the health system launched its telehealth platform with pediatricians who could jump online in between their other jobs and in-person responsibilities.

“They were doing other things,” she said. “And that didn’t work out well.”

Toward that end, Officer said it’s important to start a telehealth program with the full support and participation of the clinicians. Make them part of the planning process, she said.

“Do it with them; don’t do it to them,” she added.

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