With the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic came a sweeping utilization of telehealth services. Once a small part of and a complement to healthcare access, telemedicine saw a massive adoption and integration into the healthcare architecture for several months as the pandemic - and resulting global restrictions - held sway. According to recent data, telehealth claim lines surged by nearly 3000% between September 2019 and September 2020, as healthcare systems around the world shut hospital doors and clinic offices to attend to only urgent care services and COVID-19.
As one might expect, medical tourism has also benefited greatly from the growth in telehealth services. In fact, many medical travel programs already were using telehealth in the form of pre and post travel physician-patient video consultations. The recent growth and sophistication of telehealth services will only add to and improve the scope of services for medical travel patients.
For patients, virtual hospital visits meant shorter waiting times, faster consultations, and swift initiation of treatment. Patients found, even after the pandemic had eased, that barriers of waiting times and distance to hospitals and doctor’s offices were eliminated just with a click of a button. Further, patients felt safe in knowing they could receive healthcare services without presenting themselves in crowded hospital rooms with people who could potentially transmit COVID-19 or other contagious infections.
Telehealth also improved the productivity and efficiency of healthcare systems. With more patient needs being met via telehealth consultations hospital visits are limited to only those who truly need them while healthcare resources are also made more available for more urgent healthcare needs. Consequently, these lower healthcare providers' burnout risk, improving their efficiency and performance.
Nonetheless, while telehealth may promise outstanding results for both healthcare providers and patient care outcomes, some touch points when missed, may mar the patient care experience for your medical travel program, and ultimately cause a drop in telehealth utilization. These challenges include:
As with all digital platforms, problems with the software architecture may affect usability and, in turn, user experience. If patients frequently encounter difficulty navigating your telehealth platform or accessing services on the platform, they may ultimately abandon it to seek care via other methods. Your platform’s user interface is closely tied to your user experience; keep the
user design and interface as simple as possible, reducing the number of actions needed by the user to access their healthcare provider.
Further, if the telehealth platform is not integrated with your Electronic Health Records (EHR) system, it may slow down the continuum of care and complicate workflow. If a patient has to consult with a different doctor on the same telehealth platform, does each doctor have easy access to previous visit records and treatment histories? If your platform is not integrated into your EHR records, each consultation becomes disjointed from previous ones, compromising the patient care journey and also lowering clinical outcomes.
It is a good idea for the product team to continuously evaluate the effectiveness of the telehealth platform with surveys and feedback assessments aimed at getting first-hand information on problems users and patients are facing with the app. These form an invaluable resource pool with which providers can modify the telehealth system to better meet the needs of the patients.
Data privacy concerns
Data security is one of the main fears and concerns of telehealth users. Patients are providing sensitive data on these digital platforms, including personal health information, images, and even videos, and the security of these data is crucial to them and to the continuous usage of these digital platforms.
Have you verified the security architecture of the third-party telehealth platform you employ? Are users’ sensitive data encrypted or are they easily accessible by unauthorized persons? The availability of data security protocols in your telehealth platform, such as end-to-end encryption, and multifactor authentication, as well as third-party validation of your platform by data security experts, inspires confidence in your users/patients, improving the patient experience.
These protocols must also demonstrate to users that only authorized personnel can access these sensitive pieces of information. Further, your health app needs to also show compliance with local data regulations, such as the United States Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) and Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which prescribes data privacy frameworks for all agencies that use data. The absence of this secure data protection architecture is one way to ruin user confidence and the patient experience.
Certain user challenges may pose a barrier to the optimal engagement of your telehealth services. Regardless of the simplicity or ease of navigation of your user interface, challenges such as patients’ lack of technical skills, the unwillingness of some patients to explore telehealth, and patient disability may preclude efficient healthcare delivery in these situations.
In these circumstances, medical travel program need to tweak their telehealth tools and services to create a personalized experience. To achieve this, it helps to survey patients and potential users before launching the product or routinely through an open feedback loop to
ensure the product team makes informed decisions about which areas of the app or product require tweaking and adjustments to achieve better healthcare metrics.
For patients who are unwilling to explore digital healthcare for reasons such as the perception of digital tools being too complex, providing education about how telehealth works, as well as its benefits to patients, may be critical to getting them to engage with your telehealth services.
Patients with disabilities may benefit from digital enhancements, such as interface modifications that allow sign language, captions, color adjustments, and bio-peripherals such as custom-designed blood pressure or temperature measuring devices integrated into the telehealth models to improve the patient experience.
Language and culture barriers
Communication barriers still pose a challenge to the full optimization of telemedicine and digital health equity. Users who do not speak or read your local language or that use languages with different reading orientations (e.g., right to left) may find it challenging to navigate your patient portal or even complete a telemedicine visit if your platform does not consider these nuances.
The healthcare provider or medical travel program may want to consider investing in multi-lingual user interfaces that accommodate various language options. Further, integrating interpreters into digital health platforms is another invaluable tool for providing equitable healthcare access. For patients with hearing disabilities, integrating sign language tools and other visual aids and enhancement models may also improve usability.
A lack of cultural competence is also a strong barrier to digital equity. Lack of awareness of the divergent perceptions of telehealth and also patient care along cultural contexts may negatively impact the optimal adoption of telehealth visits.
For instance, from the design of your user interface to the interactions between providers and patients on the digital app, culturally appropriate care must be demonstrated. Non-verbal communication, including eye contact, gestures, language, and facial expressions must be appropriate for the patient’s culture. A recommended best practice is to ask about the patient’s preferences before starting the consultation.
The availability of high-quality broadband is a key step in driving optimal healthcare solutions via digital tools. Current U.S. data, for instance, about 77 percent of adults have access to high-quality broadband, with several reports of families driving to a local coffee shop, library, or school before accessing high-speed Wi-Fi.
This dire index is historically linked to marginalized populations, who mostly live in rural and low-income communities. Taking the U.S as an example, according to a 2015 U.S. Census data, these types of groups were less likely to own all types of electronic devices and broadband access. Potential solutions to this problem include identifying and signposting patients to community resources that offer free internet access, allowing access to telehealth from any safe, physical location, and offering alternatives such as telehealth options at an in-person visit.
Nonetheless, this might require a much larger scale solution to address the issues of broadband access, and requires concerted efforts of government and private insurers to expand telemedicine visits in rural communities. An increased presence of healthcare providers in rural communities, through incentives for establishing academic medical centers, has also been closely tied to improved broadband access in such areas. This, in turn, boosts equitable access to telehealth services.
Tackling the barriers to telemedicine
Telemedicine no doubt has become a catalyst for improved patient outcomes and healthcare cost savings, there are still factors that preclude its optimal use by patients. Healthcare providers and tech vendors need to understand how medical travel patients want digitalized patient care delivered to create models they can easily engage with. With these barriers addressed, telemedicine can reach its potential as a lever for achieving equitable distribution of healthcare resources and, in turn, a better healthcare experience.
For more best practices related to telehealth implementation in medical travel programs visit Global Healthcare Accreditation (GHA), or contact firstname.lastname@example.org