How to Help Your Patients with Telehealth Adoption

Research shows that accessing mental healthcare can be difficult. In 2016 alone, over 35% of the 10.4 million adults in the U.S. living with serious mental illness were unable to receive mental health services. This, when coupled with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic —where in-office visits are severely restricted—indicates that mental healthcare could become even more inaccessible.

Fortunately, technology like telehealth can help bridge the widening gap between providers and patients, especially during this period of mandatory social distancing.

Regulatory changes have already been made to encourage this. The government has lifted many privacy, geographic, and originating site restrictions on telehealth. This makes it easier for both therapists and patients to explore telehealth in this period, and possibly after.

With restrictions eased and reimbursements increased to encourage you as a mental health provider to provide increased telehealth care, the next step is to help your patients make an easier transition from in-office to telehealth sessions. To help, we outline below some of these challenges and tips on how to overcome them so more patients will feel comfortable accessing telehealth care.

These challenges include:

● Lack of awareness: Many patients simply aren't aware that their healthcare provider(s) offers telehealth in any form. Thirty-three percent of respondents in a recent survey are unsure if telehealth services are available to them, and 21% believe they don’t have access.

● Care quality concerns: While telehealth is not particularly new, it hasn't yet achieved widespread usage. Many patients are apprehensive about the quality of care and support they will receive via telehealth when compared to traditional in-office visits. This concern is not just limited to mental health patients either. A survey reported that about 48.7.% of its respondents (patients) believe that the quality of care received in a telehealth session is lower than that of a doctor's office visit.

● Financial burden: Medicare and many insurance companies typically have limited coverage for health care accessed via telehealth. Patients either pay completely out of pocket or make co-payments to access virtual mental health care (and other forms of healthcare)— deterring them from trying or relying on it.

Tips to improve their telehealth adoption

Raise awareness: Using multiple channels of communication, let your patients know that you offer telehealth sessions. You can send emails and e-newsletters to them. You can also call them over the phone as well as announce it on your practice's website and social media channels. All forms of communication should include what specific services you offer virtually and how. Answer questions like: is it via phone or laptop? Is it audio-only, or are there video capabilities too? How are appointments scheduled? Finally, use positive words in your messaging, and avoid apologizing for offering the telehealth sessions in place of in-office sessions, as that paints telehealth as something less than desirable.

Play up the advantages of telehealth adoption: Sometimes, patients need to be nudged into using new service offerings—especially one they may have limited or no experience with. Don't expect your patient to actively seek out the benefits of telehealth, instead turn the spotlight on them yourself. When you're encouraging patients to utilize virtual therapy sessions, point out advantages like significantly reduced wait times, convenience, and the elimination of transportation and its attendant costs. This elimination of the need to transport oneself to receive therapy is critical in these times when unnecessary movements from place to place are discouraged.

Optimize patient experience: This is probably the most essential step in helping patients adopt telehealth. The actual patient experience during your virtual sessions needs to be optimized and improved. If patients don't have a pleasant experience when trying out a virtual therapy session, they're unlikely to seek it out again.

Things you can do to ensure that the patient experience is excellent include:

Make sure that you are always as adequately prepared for your telehealth appointments as you would be for in-office visits. Be mindful of your personal and environmental appearance if your telehealth sessions are video-enabled.

Be on time. A significant value add of telehealth is the elimination (or at least reduction) of wait times, and lateness negates that.

Review your communication best practices. Best practices for in-office visits will be somewhat different from that of during a telehealth session, and you must be aware of those differences and adjust them as necessary

Provide easy instructions on how they can access telehealth sessions with you or your practice's doctors. Best if you can provide this ahead of time and on an ongoing basis encouraging patients to understand the process before they need to use it.

These tips aren't just for mental health practices either. All healthcare provider specialties and their patients can benefit from them. Positive patient experience will go a long way to drive behavior change in patients and get them to adopt telehealth faster.

Address patient concerns: Patients might have concerns about using telehealth to access mental health care, and primary among these concerns are likely what it will cost them and whether their insurance will cover it or not. Providing patients with clear information and resources that let them know what their financial responsibilities are (if any) will help alleviate these concerns. For instance, due to COVID-19, the federal government has expanded coverage of telehealth services for seniors under Medicare. Before this, Medicare coverage for telehealth was very limited. Many major carriers are also waiving co-payments and coinsurance costs for patients that need to access care via telehealth during the pandemic. Researching and helping patients figure out their options and which waivers apply to them can increase telehealth adoption.

Figure out preferences: Finding out what devices and tools patients feel most comfortable using during telehealth therapy sessions is essential. You can then tailor your services to either fit the preferences of individual patients (if your resources allow); or adapt to the needs of most patients. 

In your efforts to help patients adopt telehealth, consider the demographic(s) you serve. Different age groups have varying attitudes towards virtual care as well as differing levels of tech-savviness.

Finally, don't position telehealth as a temporary alternative to in-office visits. Even post-COVID-19, telehealth will remain beneficial for your practice and patients. To find out how Kareo helps independent medical and mental health practices with their telehealth needs, click here. 

About the Author

Tolu Ajiboye is a freelance health writer and lawyer. She helps healthcare brands and companies communicate effectively with their target audience, with case studies...

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