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    Christian Green
    Christian Green, MA

    In the coming years, telehealth services are likely to command a bigger seat at the healthcare table. This development won’t simply be born out of patient and provider convenience, it will be born out of necessity. 

    The need for alternative accessible care options will grow due to a projected shortage of approximately 42,600 to 121,300 physicians in the United States by 2030, along with an aging population, 20% of whom will be 65 years or older in 2030

    Despite these concerns, not everyone recognizes the benefits of telehealth services. In fact, according to a December 2017 Avizia/Modern Healthcare report, 82% of patient consumers said that they don’t use telehealth services. Survey respondents’ reasons included lack of awareness about insurance coverage, but perhaps most important is that patients often don’t know if their providers offer telehealth for their care services. 

    This is where marketing and education is invaluable for providers. Whether through signage and flyers, the practice’s website, referrals or online advertising, practices can reap the benefits of telehealth services almost immediately. Promoting their offerings can attract new patients and generate additional revenue, provide convenience and more immediate attention to patients and furnish more affordable care options for patients.

    Whatever medium(s) practices chose to employ, provider buy-in is the most essential component to a successful marketing and education plan. According to Chris Meyer, director of virtual care and telehealth at Marshfield Clinic, Marshfield, Wis., “The best education and advertising patients can get is from the mouth of their doctors. People who try telehealth love it. Part of the education is just to get patients to give it a go.” 

    With 1,250 providers at 55 facilities, Marshfield Clinic has used telehealth technology since 1997. During the past 20 years, the clinic has delivered specialized care to patients in central, northern and western Wisconsin. These services have been a key reason Marshfield has expanded the scope of its health system beyond its traditional geographic borders, according to Meyer. 

    By focusing on educating its doctors on the importance of telehealth in rural Wisconsin, Marshfield has been able to accentuate the positives to its patients. “The number one way our patients hear about telehealth is from their doctor. The doctor and patient are always the two people who make the decision whether telehealth is an appropriate modality to deliver care,” Meyer said.

    Unlike practices in rural areas, those in areas with higher population densities don’t have to rely on telehealth to serve their patients. However, an increasing number are recognizing the value and convenience of offering telehealth services to the right candidates.

    As with practices that rely on telehealth to serve patients who can’t travel far to their provider’s office to receive care, urban and suburban practices are able to promote convenience to patients and ultimately reduce the number of no-shows. 

    At Pulmonary Associates of Richmond, a private practice with five locations and 32 physicians in Richmond, Va., patient education regarding telehealth services also starts with a conversation between provider and patient. Administrator Katie Nunn, MBA, noted that qualified patients are handpicked by their physicians and asked their preference to have their next visit from their home or office via mobile device or computer. 

    “People who seem to be doing well and understand their treatment plan are the ones we pick,” Nunn said. “Some people ask, but they are not going to be a good candidate because they have Medicare or they are not the right fit because their medical conditions may be too complicated.”

    In addition, PAR makes use of signage and handouts in their waiting and exam rooms to inform patients about remote services, which include limited physical exams and CPAP follow-ups. “We decided to start promoting telehealth so that we could offer more services to our patients and help alleviate some of our space problems as well,” she said.

    On any even smaller practice scale, Family Medicine at Greenhill, a four-physician private practice in Wilmington, Del., also begins patient education via face-to-face conversations between provider and patient. Cheryl Mongillo, MBA, administrative director, said Greenhill primarily offers telehealth services for lab results that don’t require office visits, checking in with patients regarding new medications and for prescription refills. 

    Mongillo said that patients find the most value in telehealth services when they have an established relationship with their physician, which makes the education process easier and helps convince patients to try it. “The patients who really like telemedicine are our repeat customers, so we are getting a solid base of people who know it’s here,” she said.

    Beyond what takes place during patient-provider encounters, Greenhill does a good job of using multiple methods to emphasize and promote its telehealth services. In addition to its website and patient portal, Mongillo said that flyers have been an important part of the education process. “We were giving patients handouts as they were checking out to explain our telehealth process, what we do, what’s good for telehealth, what’s not good for telehealth.” 

    Greenhill’s telehealth services have been a value add for its patients and are likely to gain more traction as the practice expands its services, Mongillo said. “It’s just as valuable as coming into the office. Patients need to understand that this is part of the evolving healthcare,” Mongillo noted.

    Telehealth does more than provide accessible care for patients, it can deliver a substantial ROI for some practices. From reducing the number of patient no-shows to bringing in new patients to furnishing more appointment opportunities, it can be a value add for practices too. But the education process should start with a face-to-face conversation between provider and patient.  

    Getting the word out about telehealth services

    When educating patients about telehealth and promoting its benefits, it’s important for practices to consider the following:

    1. Start with your providers. Your providers are your best advocates for promoting and educating patients about telehealth services. Face-to-face conversations can ensure buy-in from patients. 
    2. Educate your patients. Not everyone is a candidate for telehealth services, nor is every type of care appropriate via telecommunications technologies, so make sure your patients know what’s available.
    3. Promote across all platforms. If you have the wherewithal, utilize all your practice’s channels — website, email, text messaging, social media, patient portal, flyers and signage, online advertising, referrals — to educate and inform patients. 
    4. Make the appointment process simple. For those patients who are candidates for telehealth services, ensure that they can easily make a telehealth appointment via phone, text or on your website or patient portal. 
    5. Recognize your bandwidth. When you first begin to offer telehealth services, you need to determine how many additional patients you can see each day. Will you have to add hours, and if so, can your staff manage the extra scheduling tasks?

    Additional resources

    Christian Green

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