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Overcoming barriers to telehealth adoption in primary care

In part one of a two-part series on leveraging untapped resources for telehealth revenue generation, we look at the most common barriers to telehealth adoption and ways to solve them.

The COVID-19 pandemic, an aging U.S. population in need of patient care and an increase in chronic conditions have all led to a physician shortage and forced a reported 80% of physicians to work at full capacity.1

Physician burnout and the pandemic have also made it difficult to increase in-person visits, cutting already low-profit margins even further.

Despite these barriers, incorporating telehealth primary care (virtual healthcare) can help physician practices by:

  • Providing a competitive advantage by utilizing services that differentiate them from competitors
  • Attracting and retaining new patients
  • Seeing more patients in a shorter time period 
  • Offering specialist services through remote visits

Furthermore, a 2020 McKinsey report states that an estimated $250B in annual health care spending could shift to virtual or near virtual care.2

Physician practices that have adopted strategic telehealth services have successfully addressed existing challenges and have positioned themselves for future success in an increasingly digital healthcare environment. So why have some physician practices adopted telehealth services while others resist?

According to a recent McKinsey report, 46% of physician practices have adopted telehealth services.2

Telehealth adoption rates in numbers

Although the time, effort and technology challenges, as well as the cost needed to implement telehealth solutions may seem overwhelming, a June 2020 Becker's Hospital physician survey paints a promising picture; 96% of participants were willing to use telehealth primary care for:3

  • Prescription renewals (94%)
  • Chronic care management check-ins (93%)
  • Post-surgery follow-ups or hospital stays (71%)

A Kyruus patient survey around the same period stated that 75% were completely satisfied with their virtual care experience and were highly likely to make telehealth appointments in the future. The two main telehealth usages by patients are:4

  • Wellness check-ins (60%)
  • Procedure-related visits (58%)

Clearly, there is significant interest in telehealth among physicians and patients and while usage challenges still exist, as the healthcare landscape changes, many of these barriers are breaking down.

Telehealth adoption rates: Reimbursement & revenue

One of the biggest fears among physician practices is that virtual primary care will drastically disassemble their businesses and further reduce reimbursements. However, recent research on Medicaid program updates from the Center for Connected Health Policy may help ease those fears:5

  • Live video: 50 states and Washington D.C. provide live video in Medicaid fee-for-service reimbursements
  • Store-and-forward: 18 state Medicaid programs reimburse for the collecting of clinical information (store-and-forward) sent electronically to a provider for evaluation
  • Remote patient monitoring (RPM): 21 states have Medicaid programs that provide reimbursement for RPM
  • All three: 10 state Medicaid programs reimburse for all three services above, although certain limitations apply

Since the onset of COVID-19, telehealth reimbursements have shifted dramatically, with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) and private payers beginning to reimburse for telehealth at a similar rate as in-person visits.

CMS has also:6

  • Waived limitations on the types of practitioners furnishing telehealth services
  • Broadened audio-only telephone service coverage between beneficiaries and doctors

And, in anticipation that CMS and other payers will continue to reimburse for telehealth services long after COVID-19 has ended, many leading organizations and advocacy groups support telehealth expansion. A few, including the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), have created toolkits to help physician practices develop telehealth programs.

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Leveraging an untapped resource for revenue generation: Telehealth >

Technology cost & complexity: No longer a barrier to telehealth adoption

Smaller physician practices believe the cost to implement telehealth primary care services may outweigh the benefits. There's also a fear the technology needed is too complicated and costly.

This thought process has dramatically changed in the past 6-9 months because:

  • The pandemic has driven the development of more affordable and easy-to-use Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliant telehealth solutions
  • The emergence of web-based solutions, mobile applications and text-based engagement means minimal upfront technology investments, flexibility and straightforward use for the physician and patient

Telehealth visits: A trend that's here to stay

Although the global pandemic propelled telehealth to the forefront, patients' continued interest in virtual primary care has revealed an excellent opportunity for utilizing existing resources. Experts agree that virtual care will continue to grow in a healthcare environment progressively shaped by providing efficient care and early intervention.

Whether your practice is considering remote monitoring or already using telehealth primary care services to a certain degree but without grasping its maximum potential, read part two on telehealth revenue generation options to access the full scope of possible benefits for your patients and physician practice.

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