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Everyone offers telehealth now. How will yours stand out?

Posted on healthleadersmedia.com

While the stresses and strains of COVID-19 were undeniably costly, they also helped healthcare organizations find new competencies and strengths. Among these, perhaps the most influential is the advent of telehealth.

Over the pandemic, telehealth has firmly asserted itself as an essential part of the healthcare mainstream. According to NRC Health data, year-over-year telehealth usage has nearly tripled, from 7.8% of consumers in 2019 to 27% in 2020.

With such a significant share of the healthcare marketplace at stake, healthcare leaders are keen to get the telehealth experience right. But what makes a telehealth encounter succeed, or fail?

Consumers love virtual care—but do they love your virtual care?

First, some good news: by and large, consumers love the telehealth experience.

An overwhelming majority of patients—92%—report positive sentiments about their first experiences with virtual care.

Consumers praise the modality’s convenience, of course. But they’re also happy about the attentiveness of providers and the amount of facetime they have with clinicians.

This is perhaps why enthusiasm for telehealth keeps rising: 47.2% of consumers said they were excited about telehealth in 2018, and today 54.9% say so. And it may be why nearly a third of respondents plan to make virtual care a staple of their healthcare consumption in the future.

All of this sounds like great news. However, consumer excitement about telehealth as a category does not necessarily translate to loyalty for a particular organization’s virtual-care approach. And as virtual care continues to saturate the market, the mere presence of a telehealth offering won’t impress experienced patients.

So how can healthcare organizations distinguish their virtual care from everyone else’s?

Eliminate the negative

When trying to improve an experience that 92% of people already enjoy, leaders must look for opportunities at the margins—and to start with, it may be best to focus on eliminating some of the common causes for complaint.

Here, according to NRC Health’s database, are the biggest pain points for telehealth consumers.

1. Technical/connectivity issues

A stuttering video feed. Misheard words. Lags on either end of the conversation. These are the first things that consumers mention disliking about their telehealth encounters. Such issues are not always an easy fix for healthcare organizations—especially those without ready access to high-caliber networking tools—but they’re essential nonetheless.

2. A perceived dip in professionalism

Telehealth completely transforms the healthcare setting: sometimes, the patient and provider both experience the encounter from their living rooms! While patients have the liberty to be a little more casual, however, clinicians must do their best to uphold professionalism. Appropriate dress, a neutral background, and reigning in children or pets are all important markers to many patients.

3. A perceived dip in courtesy and respect

This is by far the most serious concern around telehealth. Some telehealth patients believe that their clinicians fail to register a respectful tone. This can be a major challenge, especially because so many of the usual non-verbal signs of courtesy are lost over video. Telehealth providers must learn to communicate courtesy with their words, their faces, and their tone.

4. A lack of emotional support

If courtesy is difficult to signal over Zoom, emotional support is harder still. Providers must make explicit all the empathetic gestures that they normally take for granted, and find verbal substitutes for human touches like sympathetic nods, meaningful eye contact, or a hand on the shoulder.

5. Fears about insurance and fees

Finally, there’s the question of money. Widespread telehealth is so new, and its compensation structures are so opaque, that telehealth consumers are often uncertain about what they might owe. Organizations should do their best to make this clear, via means such as mapping rates to patients’ insurance plans.

The work is ongoing

What consumers want is a seamless telehealth experience—one complete with robust technology, clinicians who are well-trained in the art of video-call conversation, and transparent, upfront pricing.

Meeting these needs will help you elevate your virtual-care experience above your competitors’. But remember: this will always be a work in progress. In telehealth, as in every arena of medicine, staying ahead of the curve means listening to what your consumers have to say—and adjusting your approach to meet their demands.

NRC Health’s consumer-feedback database, drawing upon over 150,000 virtual-care encounters, has some insights.