Telemedicine in primary care

Published: August 11, 2020

How to effectively utilize this tool

By now it is well known that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted primary care. Office visits and revenues have precipitously dropped as physicians and patients alike fear in-person visits may increase their risks of contracting the virus. However, telemedicine has emerged as a lifeline of sorts for many practices, enabling them to conduct visits and maintain contact with patients.

Telemedicine is likely to continue to serve as a tool for primary care providers to improve access to convenient, cost-effective, high-quality care after the pandemic. Another benefit of telemedicine is it can help maintain a portion of a practice’s revenue stream for physicians during uncertain times.

Indeed, the nation has seen recent progress toward telemedicine parity, which refers to the concept of reimbursing providers’ telehealth visits at the same rates as similar in-person visits.

Another challenge to adopting telemedicine is that it calls for adjusting established workflows for in-person encounters. A practice cannot simply replicate in-person processes to work for telehealth. While both in-person and virtual visits require adherence to HIPAA, for example, how you actually protect patient privacy will call for different measures. Harking back to the early days of EMR implementation, one does not need to like the telemedicine platform or process, but come to terms with the fact that it is a tool that is here to stay to deliver patient care.

Following are a few tips for primary care practices to help mitigate disruption while embracing telemedicine.

Treat your practice like a laboratory

Adoption may vary between practices depending on many factors, including clinicians’ comfort with technology, clinical tolerance and triage rules for nontouch encounters, state regulations, and more. Every provider group should begin experimenting with telemedicine in specific ways that make sense for them.

One physician may practice telemedicine full-time while the rest abstain, or perhaps the practice prefers to offer telemedicine services during specific hours on specific days. Don’t be afraid to start slowly when you’re trying something new – but do get started with telehealth. It will increasingly be a mainstream medium and more patients will come to expect it.

Train the entire team

Many primary care practices do not enjoy the resources of an information technology team, so all team members essentially need to learn the new skill of telemedicine usage, in addition to assisting patients. That can’t happen without staff buy-in, so it is essential that everyone from the office manager to medical assistants have the training they need to make the technology work. Juggling schedules for telehealth and in-office, activating an account through email, starting and joining a telehealth meeting, and preparing a patient for a visit are just a handful of basic tasks your staff should be trained to do to contribute to the successful integration of telehealth.

Educate and encourage patients to use telehealth

While unfamiliarity with technology may represent a roadblock for some patients, others resist telemedicine simply because no one has explained to them why it’s so important and the benefits it can hold for them. Education and communication are critical, including the sometimes painstaking work of slowly walking patients through the process of performing important functions on the telemedicine app.

By providing them with some friendly coaching, patients won’t feel lost or abandoned during what for some may be an unfamiliar and frustrating process.

Manage more behavioral health

Different states and health plans incentivize primary practices for integrating behavioral health into their offerings. Rather than dismiss this addition to your own practice as too cumbersome to take on, I would recommend using telehealth to expand behavioral health care services.

If your practice is working toward a team-based, interdisciplinary approach to care delivery, behavioral health is a critical component. While other elements of this “whole person” health care may be better suited for an office visit, the vast majority of behavioral health services can be delivered virtually.

To decide if your patient may benefit rom behavioral health care, the primary care provider (PCP) can conduct a screening via telehealth. Once the screening is complete, the PCP can discuss results and refer the patient to a mental health professional – all via telehealth. While patients may be reluctant to receive behavioral health treatment, perhaps because of stigma or inexperience, they may appreciate the telemedicine option as they can remain in the comfort and familiarity of their homes.

Collaborative Care is both an in-person and virtual model that allows PCP practices to offer behavioral health services in a cost effective way by utilizing a psychiatrist as a “consultant” to the practice as opposed to hiring a full-time psychiatrist. All services within the Collaborative Care Model can be offered via telehealth, and all major insurance providers reimburse primary care providers for delivering Collaborative Care.

When PCPs provide behavioral health treatment as an “extension” of the primary care service offerings, the stigma is reduced and more patients are willing to accept the care they need.

Many areas of the country suffer from a lack of access to behavioral health specialists. In rural counties, for example, the nearest therapist may be located over an hour away. By integrating behavioral telehealth services into your practice’s offerings, you can remove geographic and transportation obstacles to care for your patient population.

Doing this can lead to providing more culturally competent care. It’s important that you’re able to offer mental health services to your patients from a professional with a similar ethnic or racial background. Language barriers and cultural differences may limit a provider’s ability to treat a patient, particularly if the patient faces health disparities related to race or ethnicity. If your practice needs to look outside of your community to tap into a more diverse pool of providers to better meet your patients’ needs, telehealth makes it easier to do that.

Adopting telemedicine for consultative patient visits offers primary care a path toward restoring patient volume and hope for a postpandemic future.