Health systems see telehealth dip, but the tech is here to stay

Traditional providers are starting to see the telehealth boom of 2020 begin to slide. At the same time, consumer health tech continues to see a surge of investment dollars and public interest.  

“Everyone had a similar experience during the early days of COVID. We all rushed into digital, and now we are watching and looking at the trends and seeing a drop-off in utilization across a lot of health systems,” Tom Kiesau, director and digital leader of the Chartis Group, said at HIMSS21. 

In fact, a Trilliant Health survey found that telehealth reached its peak in April 2020 and has been petering off since then. 

“We’ve heard lots of reasons for what’s going on. Patients don’t want it. They want to get back into physical settings. What’s really clear is that, according to data, consumers do want it. And you look at the spending and investment outside of our traditional healthcare industry, there is a huge push to serve consumers. … Health systems are forced to not just think about doing digital, but being digital, and incorporating [it] more holistically into their business model and strategy.”

The panelists admitted that, at the start of the pandemic, the digital health strategy was often not unified, creating issues. 

“The technologies that were in play were so vast and varied. We saw so many. So at the end of the day, a year ago, we said. ‘Hey providers. Deliver care anyway you can,'” Jeff Sturman, SVP & CIO at Memorial Healthcare System.

“That was good, because then you are making sure that care is being delivered, which is good, but then you also created this fragmented environment and inefficient workflows and inconsistencies from a support standpoint. So over this last year we got a lot smarter. We’ve all gotten a lot smarter, and so we consolidated more of a single platform.”

The biggest issues were logistical, not necessarily technical, and took a buy-in from key stakeholders, including clinicians. 

“We like to say technology is the easy part of this, and the hard part is operation culture and overall management support and sponsorship. Culture doesn’t change overnight, culture doesn’t change in a year,” Dr. Nick Patel, chief digital officer at Prima Health and vice chair for innovation and clinical innovation for UCertainly, said during the panel.

“We’ve had a lot of impetus to move things forward really quickly, but still reverting back is easier than maintaining,”

In addition to operations, the telehealth platforms were often not easy to use for consumers. 

“The clunky experience, in primary care especially, is not intuitive to any consumer used to using any digital platforms,” Aaron Martin executive VP and chief digital officer at Providence, said. “When we first launched it, because we had to, especially these zoom visits, you would have to call to make an appointment for a virtual visit, which is absurd. Most other hospitals were in the same situation. So, not surprisingly, after we got out of that emergency, patients were like, ‘This is ridiculous. If I have to make a phone call, I’m going to go to the doctor’s office.’ It’s not a pure digital transaction.”

Aaron likens the experience to shopping on Amazon and being able to browse, when you want to buy a product requiring a call to an 800 number. 

Where is the future?

The panelists agreed that there was clearly a place for technology in the future and that consumers are interested in using it. However, future planning needs to be done thoughtfully.

“The key is really finding the problems you are trying to solve from the healthcare’s standpoint. Don’t start with the technology and try to squeeze it into a mold after the fact. Start simple, and understand the tech landscape, and make wise decisions,” Patel said. 

He said it’s important to learn from big tech too. An Amazon vet, he said the retail giant’s model of recreating an industry is a good lesson learned. 

“There is something we brought over from Amazon. You can’t simply layer a digital veneer on all business models. You have to create a new business model, and you have to get engagement from physicians,” Martin said. 

The future of health may be a lot more hybrid. 

“I try to imagine how I would want to experience this application or service? I think that is very key. There are going to be challenges. You are going to have the SDoH around tech literacy, broadband access, and you have to consider this.

“There’s going to be a hybrid approach. You can’t just start with I’m 100% digital, and that’s how it is going to be. It’s going to be a hybrid approach,” Patel said. “There are patients who are going to have to come into the practice, and then there are patients who are healthy and are maintained, [who] can be managed digitally.”

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