Telehealth: Providing digital support to virtual patients

Doctor on phone

As the Coronavirus epidemic spreads rapidly across the United States and many other countries, digital tools have become a way to stay connected. Technology like Zoom and WhatsApp have replaced in-person social interactions, while Slack and Teams have kept communication open across organizations.

Likewise, In healthcare, there are calls for greater use of telehealth and digital tools to help ease the pressure on hospitals and clinics, to reduce the spread of germs, and increase health awareness and education. 

The benefits of going digital

Technology can scale access to vital health information and to healthcare professionals. In resource-strapped and rural areas, it can give greater access to doctors who otherwise couldn’t visit in-person, and can help people have consultations in their homes when they cannot travel and to better enable social distancing. It can help to meet demand when it spikes, as is the case with the current pandemic, and answer concerns quickly. Patients can also access telehealth services out-of-hours. Time is of the essence for both patient and practitioner, and digital tools can make all the difference in the patient experience and even their care and outcomes. 

Some considerations

But caring for people over virtual channels presents some unique challenges. When using telehealth and other technology, it’s essential to provide the same level of care and empathy. For example, under the Medicare Advantage Rule, providers that use telehealth tools must give the same level of care and treatment as the patient would receive in-person. 

The most important thing when investing in any digital tool to support patients is to create a positive connection. To communicate with patients in a supportive and clear way, suited to them, that’s scalable and that’s patient-centered. 

With all this in mind, here are some digital tools that can help you support your virtual patients.

Care in your pocket: mobile apps

Mobile phones are ubiquitous in modern society, so it comes as no surprise that they are an effective telehealth tool. In Sierra Leone, medical researchers used mobile apps to collect first-hand data from patients on the ebola outbreak. This, coupled with GPS data, helped doctors to contact trace patients and track the spread of infection. Helping them find ways to halt the disease in its tracks.

Meanwhile, Ceras Health offers a mobile-based telehealth tool that enables physicians to remotely check-in with their patients. This is useful in the current pandemic scenario where many vulnerable and elderly people are confined to their homes. It also has uses in rural and poor locations where access to healthcare facilities can be limited. Furthermore, the company’s “I’m Home” app enables patients to self-report their coronavirus symptoms and engage early-on with a doctor for more proactive COVID-19 management.

Video conferencing and recordings

Video can be a useful way to physically see and interact with a patient, without having to be in the same room as them. Video recordings during the Sierra Leone Ebola outbreak, helped researchers communicate with village chieftains and provide essential community healthcare training. It also prevented workers from visiting complex and dangerous locations.

Video-based visits can also provide care for patients who cannot travel easily or are self-isolating. Everything from physical therapy to mental health care can be provided over video if circumstances and patient consent allow.

This can extend beyond video to include prescriptions and in-home care tools delivered directly to a patient’s doorstep. 

Wearables for real-time data

Biometric data from wearables like implanted sensors, smartwatches, and chest straps, can provide real-time information to professionals. Blood pressure, glucose levels, oxygen levels, weight, and patient adherence to a treatment plan can all be tracked to ensure the best outcome. This unlocks the next level in precision medicine, where medicine can be tailored to a patient’s data profile and tweaked over time. 

It can also be combined with other digital tools like mobile phones. Kardia, an electrode device that monitors a patient’s cardiac health, links with a smartphone app so both patient and physician can see the results. The device can detect atrial fibrillation with 96% accuracy, making it ideal for heart procedure follow-ups.

Bots to empower patients

Bots can empower patients with clear information that can improve their adherence, care, and awareness. Northwell Health, for example, used bots to reduce ‘no-shows’ for its colonoscopies. 40 percent of less privileged patients don’t follow through with the procedure and the personalized bot aims to change this. By offering conversational information before their procedure and addressing concerns early-on. 

Likewise, Youper A.I. uses bots to gauge the psychological state of patients and offer guided meditations. As users communicate more with the bot, it fine-tunes the experience to their needs.

Bots are also useful in responding quickly to patient inquiries. Concerns and emotions can run high during a pandemic or other health emergency, so giving an instant response can help reduce patient stress. Helpshift’s custom and QuickSearch Bots can direct people to important resources, on social distancing and handwashing, for instance. It can be used to answer generic health-related questions or healthcare provider-specific queries (such as opening times). This frees up health professionals to focus on complex cases and patient care.

Meeting expectations in the digital age

The demand for telehealth options in our current time highlights the growing need for digital solutions that connect people with professionals at times, and locations, that suit them. It’s little surprise that patients are looking for innovative, tech-driven ways to improve their health, given how bots, video, and other tools have become commonplace in other industries. 

By investing in digital tools, you can meet patient expectations for a quick, seamless healthcare experience. Helping and empowering people to stay healthy now and in the future.

Published April 3, 2020
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