Telehealth: How the Patient Experience is Now a User Experience

September 18, 2020
Chris Neuner

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. 

So in the midst of a global pandemic that has challenged healthcare organizations, healthcare providers, drug manufacturers -- and arguably the entire medical industry -- it’s no surprise that we’re now seeing examples of innovation, ingenuity, and opportunities to deliver better care. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to telehealth. 

From making it easier to access relevant data collected by wearables like heart rate monitors, to HCP consults happening in virtual reality (VR), solutions and services that once seemed too futuristic (or just unorthodox) are now becoming a reality. 

And with every advancement in telemedicine, one theory about the future of healthcare becomes clear: The patient experience is evolving into a user experience -- so every company that touches that experience must be prepared to manage it like one. 

Building on a legacy of tech-enabled healthcare

Loosely defined as “the use of technology like computers and mobile devices to access and manage clinical and non-clinical healthcare services,” some of the earliest examples of telehealth emerged in the 1950s and 60s -- including neurologists at the University of Nebraska using phone lines to send and receive medical documents, and psychiatrists at the Nebraska Psychiatry Institute doing consults over CCTV. 

The birth of the Internet in the 90s and the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in 2009 mark the next big milestones in telehealth. 

While the importance of the former is a no-brainer -- what’s less well-known is that bundled in the ARRA legislation was a massive bill called HITECH (or Health Information for Economic and Clinical Health), that allocated over $25 billion in federal funds to developments in health information technology. 

That investment helped create the infrastructure that thousands of HCPs, insurance companies and healthtech startups are working within now, to bring remote, digital and virtual healthcare services to millions of Americans in the wake of COVID-19.  

Removing bureaucratic barriers to effective care

It’s not just about the technology -- big shifts in terms of public policies around the kinds of personal health information that can be shared, as well as the kinds of tech-enabled solutions that insurers will cover, are making telehealth a more pervasive part of the everyday user  experience. 

For example, in March, Medicare expanded coverage of telemedicine visits to all patients (as opposed to just people living in rural areas), and made it so that doctors could be reimbursed for quick “check-ins” over the phone, or even reviewing images that patients sent them via email.

Meanwhile, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) relaxed some aspects of the HIPAA disclosure policies, so that HCPs now have more flexibility to deliver virtual care without worrying about whether they’ll be penalized. 

Those back-end changes have transformed the end-user experience and opened the floodgates to one of the simplest forms of telehealth: virtual visits with HCPs. 

Virtual visits are becoming big business 

The numbers don’t lie. Take this recent case report from the NYU Langone Health system -- a large, academic healthcare system that spans four hospitals and over 8,000 medical professionals in New York City.  

Over the course of six weeks in March and April, virtual urgent care visits shot up from roughly 100 sessions to more than 800 sessions per day -- an increase of 683 percent -- once the Langone team made more virtual service providers available. 

But whether it’s a massive, urban health center like NYU Langone, or an urgent care facility in a more rural town, HCPs and organizations that have expanded telehealth capabilities are likely planning to continue offering these services. That’s partly because they’re more comfortable with the tech now -- a McKinsey & Company survey found that 57 percent of HCPs viewed telehealth more favorably than before COVID-19 -- but also because the flexibility and access serve as a key advantage to delivering a better patient experience. 

The next frontier for Point of Care marketing  

The widespread adoption of virtual visits with HCPs also represents a new opportunity for life science companies to add value to the patient experience in a way that’s novel and familiar at the same time: providing content in the virtual “waiting room.” 

Although there are a variety of virtual interface providers, the user experience still mimics what it’s like to visit an HCP in the real world -- you make an appointment, show up, sign in, and then wait to see the doctor. What’s new is the ability for a treatment provider or device manufacturer to engage with the patient (and even the HCP) in real-time, programmatically, as care takes place. 

For example, imagine a patient that’s scheduled a virtual visit with her doctor to discuss a mild allergic reaction she was having. Using the telehealth platform as a point-of-care marketing channel, an OTC allergy brand could offer up a short video about common household irritants that she could watch while in the “virtual” waiting room -- and then deliver a money-saving coupon once the visit was complete. Meanwhile, linking that telehealth platform to CRM data might allow the same brand to retarget her with relevant content about the best laundry detergents for allergies, or other products that could help alleviate her symptoms in the future. 

As with any health-focused marketing effort, the bottom line is to provide value -- and to do it in a way that enhances the user experience -- so figuring out how to strike the balance between providing targeted information, respecting user privacy and delivering a seamless technology experience will be key. 

Connected devices, homes and healthcare 

The evolution of telehealth is pushing beyond just talking to an HCP on the phone, laptop or tablet -- it’s extending into the realm of wearables and in-home devices, too. Apps embedded in iOS and Android devices like Cardiogram are already able to send information to HCPs about conditions like diabetes and sleep apnea, while companies like Babyscripts offer remote peripherals to help OB/GYNs deliver virtual pre- and post-partum care. 

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