The past few years have changed a lot of perspectives on the intersection of technology and the patient experience. As we’ve seen, the right technology, such as telehealth, supports improved patient care — especially in rural areas struggling with hospital closures and a shortage of doctors and nurses.

Amid the pandemic, everyone grew more comfortable using technology to continue their daily routines, and healthcare was no different. Telehealth quickly became a viable stand-in to in-person appointments, and practitioners need to maintain that momentum moving forward.

Many patients had their first telehealth experience during the pandemic. While these offerings experienced a spike amid the pandemic and have subsequently levelled off, their use remains elevated.

Telehealth has not only proven to be a quality experience, it’s a real pathway to care for rural patients. Moving forward, we’ll likely see its use trend upwards, begging another question: Should patients be expecting — and demanding — it?

Telehealth in rural communities – Lowering the barrier to care

Rural communities face numerous barriers to care. The availability of care is the most significant barrier, considering that many rural hospitals are closing or transforming into rural emergency centers.

When health providers close in a community, it has a ripple effect and burdens patients who often must travel farther for basic care. But deploying telehealth can help lower those barriers.

Consider a patient whose child has been running a fever for several days and then has to schedule an appointment at the clinic. It might take a couple of days before an appointment is available. Then, the patient might have to drive 60 or 70 miles to the clinic, causing a major disruption.

If the child just needs an antibiotic, they can quickly hop on a telehealth call, and a doctor can write a prescription — all without disrupting the whole day and at a lower cost.

A doctor’s fee is significant for many patient communities, but it’s often only the tip of the iceberg. Consider, too, that a visit is often on top of a lost productivity day and other potential costs, such as changing work schedules and arranging childcare. Many patients would prefer to knock out a doctor “visit” with a virtual appointment today instead of waiting for an appointment in a day or two.

Most patients experienced the benefits of this type of care at least once during the pandemic, and many expect to be able to repeat this positive experience in the future.

The next step with technology

Deploying technology is merely the first step to improving the overall patient experience. Telehealth and other solutions, like remote patient monitoring, give healthcare providers increased insight into their patients, including when they are admitted, transferred or discharged.

It’s clear patients like how technology augments the medical experience, but could they be using it more? They could be, and providers have an opportunity to focus on how they can make the telehealth experience better for patients, particularly among rural communities.

Whether scheduling an appointment or working on patient intake, providers must focus on presenting options and information to make it easier to navigate, more visible and an inherent part of the patient experience.

During the patient intake phase, what’s the first message they hear if they’re coming in through an app, the website or the phone? What options are they presented?  How are they responding?

With that information, providers can tailor their outreach — both the frequency and the type. With technology, providers can engage with patients more, send them more text messages and, with remote patient monitoring, reach out more frequently if specific health events necessitate it.

Thinking differently requires new metrics

The goal of technology is to improve communication between patients and their primary care providers to drive the overall goal of better outcomes.

Patients should want the increased deployment of technology. This is a better path toward the ultimate outcome everyone wants. Many CEOs have started dashboarding metrics for risk scoring and clinical quality measures to incentivize and track overall outcomes in population groups that are historically underserved or have worse outcomes.

The future is technology, but it’s not just deploying technology for the sake of it. Any solution must streamline and improve the patient experience and overall outcome.

While it’s a multifaceted approach, telehealth is a significant part of that strategy. Considering that some of the highest satisfaction rates among patients and providers are around telehealth, this technology is perfectly positioned to help lead the healthcare technology revolution in the post-pandemic world.

About the author

Nathan Shepard, VP of Product at Azalea Health, has been working for over 15 years to understand the problems physicians face in improving patient care and profitability. His team constantly engages with clients to document problems and prioritize the highest-impact issues his team needs to solve.

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