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Telemedicine & Telehealth Emerge as Medical Marketing Opportunities During COVID

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

March 17, 2020, may well be remembered as the day the telemedicine revolution finally took off. Telemedicine and Telehealth's adoption, fast-tracked by Coronavirus/COVID, will create profound changes in how healthcare services are provided — while also spawning new healthcare marketing opportunities.

Doctor performing telemedicine or telehealth with laptop, tablet and cell phone

Telemedicine & Telehealth: Innovation & Opportunities

Earlier last month, in the interest of public safety, the federal government largely removed two huge and long-standing barriers to telemedicine adoption by easing reimbursement and HIPAA restrictions. Many private pay health plans followed suit. These changes open the door to exciting new ways to better serve patients today and to bolster, grow and sustain medical practices, medical offices, hospitals, and healthcare networks in the future.

Changes in healthcare and medical services delivery commenced almost instantly. For example, right around this time, we spoke with one of our multi-location oncology clients about our marketing teams' recommended changes to their marketing plans due to COVID-19. These discussions evolved to focus on their need to help cancer patients both safely and remotely, and their uncertainties regarding HIPAA. The new rules now allow the use of simple, practical, patient-friendly solutions like Apple FaceTime and Zoom, to communicate with homebound patients. True to their purpose, these new government proclamations have opened the door to safer, better, and more convenient care for cancer patients.

Our healthcare clients are not alone:

"With the coronavirus pandemic turning doctors' offices into no-go zones, family physicians are now doing many of their consultations online or by telephone," The New York Times reports. "In a matter of days, a revolution in telemedicine has arrived at the doorsteps of primary care doctors in the U.S. and in Europe. The virtual doctor visits, at first a matter of safety, are now a centerpiece of family doctors' plans to treat everyday illnesses. We're basically witnessing ten years of change in one week."

Until now, operational challenges, internal politics, resistance from doctors, state law limitations, and  HIPAA and reimbursement-related fears had stymied larger healthcare systems from embracing telemedicine. Due to COVID-19, these same players suddenly found ways to do the previously unimaginable - adopt telemedicine at scale in a matter of weeks.

According to Harvard Business Review, "Prior to this crisis, many major health care systems had begun to develop telemedicine services, and some, including Intermountain Healthcare in Utah, have been quite active in this regard. That said, nationwide use of telemedicine had been limited. John Brownstein, chief healthcare innovation officer of Boston Children's Hospitalnoted that his medical institution was doing more telemedicine visits during any given day in late March that it had during the entire previous year."

During a recent webinar (COVID-19: Up to the Minute Learnings from Industry Experts on the Front Lines of the Coronavirus Pandemic), Ed Rafalski, Ph.D., Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer of BayCare Health said, "Necessity is the mother of innovation and invention here at Baycare. I have been trying to get the organization to get more providers stood up on our telehealth platform, and a crisis made it happen. So the good news is we're adding capacity and getting providers trained that up until this point were either unwilling, or afraid, or too busy seeing patients. And so what's happened is because people are canceling elective business, doctors have free time. So they're saying, 'Well heck, I'll go ahead and get trained on telehealth.'  So we're building our capacity exponentially, which is good news."

Consumer and Doctor Acceptance of Telehealth: What Does the Data Shows?

With social and physical distancing, telemedicine has gained a greater consumer and provider appeal virtually overnight. Telemedicine is a new marketing opportunity, and now is the time to take full advantage of this shift. It's likely to be a permanent change.

For their part, many consumers have been ripe for change for some time.

As far back as 2015, PricewaterhouseCoopers Health Research Institute found that fully 80% of consumers said they'd be open to looking beyond traditional visits for care, and 60% said they were willing to consider virtual doctor visits.

By 2019, American Well's Telehealth Index: 2019 Consumer Survey, found 66% of consumers were willing to use telehealth, and 8% had tried it. As you might expect, attitudes toward telehealth varied by age. 74% of 18-34-year-olds and 72% of 35-44-year-olds said they were willing to use it, while 52% of seniors (65+) said they were open to telehealth. Of those who had used telemedicine, 54% were Millennials.

Speaking of Millennials, remember they were born into a tech-rich world. Millennials number over 75 million and 40 percent say telemedicine is an extremely or very important option. It's in their digital DNA to expect and demand immediacy and convenience. What's more, computers, laptops, mobile devices, and smartphones are ubiquitous, and virtually everyone is equipped for instant audio/video conferencing.

In response to COVID, Sykes TeleHealth Services just completed a survey to understand changing consumer perceptions and behaviors regarding telehealth in our new era. Interestingly, almost 42% of people initially screened were still not even aware of telemedicine, which disqualified them from taking the survey. Of the 2000 respondents (58% of the total) of people who ARE aware of telehealth:

  • When asked if their health insurance provider covers telemedicine, 52% said yes, 10% said no, and 35% weren't sure.
  • When asked, "Have you ever considered trying a telehealth appointment?" 20% said they had already completed a telehealth appointment, 40% had considered it, but not yet made an appointment, 37% said they would consider it, and 3% said they wouldn't consider it.
  • Importantly, people who try telehealth become satisfied enough to do it again. Of those who had tried a telehealth appointment, 59% said they'd already had more than one appointment, 37% said they'd consider scheduling another appointment, while 4% said they would not consider another appointment.
  • Most importantly, COVID-19 promises to be a game-changer. 73% of respondents said they'd be willing to use telehealth if they showed symptoms of COVID-19, while 60% said COVID-19 had increased their willingness to try telehealth in the future.

Meanwhile, even before COVID-19, physicians predicted a growing acceptance of telehealth. American Well's 2019 Physician Survey reported that 69% of physicians were willing to have a video visit. The top reasons cited were increased access for patients, flexible work-life balance, to attract and retain patients, to improve outcomes, and to be on the leading edge of medicine.

What's more, 22% of surveyed physicians said they had already used telehealth to see patients, a 340% increase from 2015 when only 5% had tried it. These doctors reported benefits, including increased access to care, more efficient use of time, reduced costs, high-quality communications with patients, and enhanced relationships with patients.

To make the data come alive for you, let me share two personal stories.

Last year, our family was enjoying Spring Break at our (currently closed) Airbnb vacation rental in Palm Springs. My daughter woke us up, worried about a bug bite with a growing ring around the site of the bite. Rather than taking a chance and spending time at unknown urgent care, we opened my laptop and requested a quick telemedicine conference. Presto, within mere minutes - and for less than I would have paid at the urgent care - our daughter's minor-but-annoying irritation was solved. She was relieved, and we all sat down to enjoy a family morning with pancakes. Anecdote #2: Days after I alerted him to the new HIPAA and reimbursement changes, my primary care physician sent me an email proudly announcing, "Hey… I've now got telemedicine available." Evidently, he now appreciates the opportunity that is knocking.

Google Trends shows increase in interest in telehealth

Google Trends shows the record rise in searches for "telehealth," peaking March 20 due to COVID

The Telemedicine Marketing Opportunity
The coronavirus outbreak has been a tumultuous experience and a worldwide tragedy. At least we can take some solace that our nation's healthcare system will almost inevitably improve as a result. Telemedicine specifically offers the promise of better care and, at the same time, provides a unique marketing opportunity.

As we've seen, the barriers to telemedicine adoption are disappearing rapidly. Regulations and reimbursement are improving. Meanwhile, most doctors and patients who have tried telemedicine continue to use it.

Virtual services provide a fresh (and often new) service line for hospital CEOs, medical practice administrators, doctors, nurse practitioners, behavioral health professionals, and other healthcare providers.

Potential benefits to your organization include:

  • Greater patient satisfaction
  • Exceptional convenience
  • Patient retention
  • Operational efficiency, and
  • Increased revenues

Many consumers have long been enthusiastic about the convenience of telemedicine. Changes on the provider side—partly due to the COVID-19 Nationwide Public Health Emergency—include:

  • Telemedicine reimbursement is more universally available, including many, if not most, private insurance plans
  • Some virtual doctor visits pay at the same rate as regular in-person visits
  • Our government has relaxed HIPAA have restrictions in favor of the greater good because of the COVID emergency
  • Medicare Part B provides for billing for non-face-to-face communications
  • The learning curve has become flat; providers and patients are familiar with communications technology (Zoom, Google Meet, FaceTime, etc.)
  • Patients and healthcare providers have computer equipment and use two-way communications nearly universally
  • Professional organizations, such as the American College of Physicians, encourage virtual visits, whenever appropriate, to limit potential coronavirus exposure

Here are some of the telemedicine marketing strategies to consider:

  • Email your patients to inform them that you now offer telemedicine. Reinforce the message with in-office signage and staff/provider conversations with patients
  • Feature your telemedicine option on your website
  • Promote a new level of convenience with universal consumer appeal
  • Promote telemedicine through your medical SEO/organic and paid social media
  • Start a paid search campaign that targets patients in your area who are already looking for a telemedicine provider
  • Present telemedicine as an offer, such as a telemedicine screening
  • It can also act as a gateway channel for an online second opinion
  • A low-cost, low-risk introductory channel for elective care
  • Telemedicine is an easy and natural initial gateway for urgent care
  • Offer telemedicine services through doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists, and many others
  • Remote patient monitoring, compliance, and follow-up
  • A telemedicine connection can be available at partner locations. (For example, generalists could provide telemedicine access to allied specialists when appropriate.)

In some medical marketplaces, your new telehealth marketing program coulds be a competitive advantage. In other areas, telemedicine is rapidly becoming "table stakes."

Remember, whether you choose to embrace telemedicine or not, you are already competing with local providers AND well-funded telehealth service providers like Teladoc.

What are Some Telemedicine Options?

People still need healthcare, and healthcare still needs patients. Right now, the various telemedicine formats are an attractive and safe way to connect with new and existing patients. Some platforms also easily facilitate group meetings or collaboration among multiple participants, partners, or internal staff.

And, it's now relatively easy to open a telemedicine window across the service spectrum. Health systems, medical practices, hospitals, urgent care centers, and other healthcare providers all can adopt telemedicine to benefit their community. For the most part, telemedicine platforms are scalable and can serve large multi-location providers, hospitals, and service line departments, as well as individual doctors and practices.

Right now, during the COVID-19 epidemic, smaller providers are necessarily relying on simple, ad hoc technologies like FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype.

Still, there are dozens of mature and stable software options available for both the enterprise level (e.g., EHR/HL7v2/FHIR integrations at Microsoft) and for the individual practice.

Just in case creating a telemedicine program is entirely new for you, or if you're rolling it out as a more substantial part of your services, here is an unordered sampling of some of the telemedical services you might consider:

DOXY.ME – A simple, free, and secure telemedicine solution with unlimited message, voice, and video connections. It also has paid tiers with additional features. Doxy.me integrates with Electronic Health Records (EHR) or Practice Management software.

ALLSCRIPTS – Now offers telemedicine integration for health systems and practices to its EHR and practice management software offerings.

EVISIT – Claims an industry leadership position a virtual care provider favored by health systems, hospitals, clinics, and physician groups in the US.

AMC HEALTH – Provides various comprehensive services, including patient personalization and remote monitoring and tracking of patient devices. AMC Health includes clinical trial and research options.

SIMPLEVISIT – Manages telemedicine programs with HIPAA-compliant video visits compatible over Skype, FaceTime, or other communications platforms.

MEND – Described as full-featured and easy to use telemedicine suite. Mend includes voice and video calling, plus appointment reminders, online forms, and appointment self-scheduling.

MEDICI – A secure platform to connect doctors with patients using text, audio, and video. HIPAA compliant provides for billing, chat translate, and other features.

UPDOX – A secure, simple, HIPAA-compliant telemedicine tool. "During the COVID-19 crisis, telehealth is a critical channel for physicians to care for patients while minimizing risk to themselves and others and protecting the community."

SPRUCE HEALTH – Describes itself as a powerful tool for patients, healthcare providers, and other partners in health to connect and communicate.

Remember, telemedicine and telehealth capabilities represent a significant marketing opportunity. The social distancing demands, plus the broad audience appeal and accessibility, will fundamentally change how patients are seen now and for the foreseeable future.

For Additional Reference:

Coronavirus: CMS eases restrictions on telehealth and virtual services

HEALTHCARE SUCCESS Podcast: Telehealth Providers Have More Options Than Ever Before, with David Craig, Medical Director at Spruce Health.

BLOG ARTICLE: How to Build a Healthcare Brand for Millennials (and why you must)

Note, while the terms are often used interchangeably by the public and even some of the sources cited in this post, technically speaking, TELEMEDICINE refers to remotely providing healthcare services, typically using a secure audio/video platform between provider and patient. Telemedicine is a subset of the larger TELEHEALTH, which also includes online medical education, training, administrative meetings, group sessions, and the like.

Related Telemedicine, Telehealth & COVID/Coronavirus disease links available on the pages of Healthcare Success:
The Explosive Rise of Telemedicine Will Challenge Your Marketing Plan | Why Telehealth of Tomorrow Belongs in Your Marketing Plan Today | COVID Healthcare Marketing Questions: Pause, Pivot, or Push for Success? | COVID-19: Healthcare Marketing Adjustments | Ways Social Media & Digital Marketing Help the Public During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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