You’ve crunched the data, done your research, and decided that telemedicine is a good fit for your hospital system. Whether it’s the cost savings, increased access to care, or a great benefit for your hospital staff, you already know that telemedicine will make a long-lasting impact in your organization. So where do you go from here? What’s the best way to implement telemedicine in a hospital system to ensure its success?
After rolling out telemedicine platforms in over sixty organizations, we have learned the consistent themes that make the launch of a telemedicine program successful. Whether you are a small hospital or a multi-billion-dollar health system, the nuts and bolts of rolling out a successful telemedicine program are relatively the same. From common sense advice to process recommendations, there are ten best practices every health system should know before rolling out a telemedicine program.
1- Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good
As medical professionals, it sounds counter-intuitive. Most physicians and medical staff have been groomed in an environment where absolute perfection is a requisite for success- even the determining factor between life and death. This mindset remains true for telemedicine with respect to the clinical care provided!
However, when it comes to a number of other variables—a full EHR integration, IT stumbling blocks, etc—don’t let perfection stand in your way from launching a telemedicine platform.
I often hear executives tell me that they need to have all of their “ducks in a row” before rolling out a program. It’s important to understand that telemedicine is a relatively new form of healthcare delivery, and the industry is quickly evolving. There are lots of reasons to say “not until”, but there are even more reasons to pilot a service that will have significant long-term benefits to the health system! My rule of thumb is that if it’s possible to execute 85% of vision and get it started, it is better than holding up the project or not doing it at all.
Side note: There are many things within healthcare that absolutely cannot be compromised, like quality of care and patient satisfaction. I’m not telling you to turn your head, I’m suggesting that you focus on what matters most. For instance, one telemedicine provider may be able to integrate with every single piece of technology you currently have running within your hospital, but if the quality of care isn’t high or the patients hate using the service, it will ultimately become useless. Don’t let EHR integration, claims processing, and other IT items get in the way. Those are boxes that can be checked as your relationship grows with your provider. Instead, spend your time perfecting physician/patient relationships, low wait-times, resolution rates, and patient satisfaction rates.
2- Set a clear strategy
Chances are, you have decided to move forward with a telemedicine program to achieve a desired outcome, such as preparing for population health initiatives, attracting new patients to your network, or generating health plan savings. Before launching a program, it’s important to determine an implementation strategy that ladders up to your objectives.
I’ll give you an example. Clients will often request to “white label”, or rebrand the telemedicine platform so that it is consistent with their hospital branding. This approach requires a significant investment. If the objective of the program is to increase brand recognition or attract new patients, I tell them to go for it. But if the objective is to collect data through an employee pilot, I remind them to think through their original objective for the program to determine if the white label is really worth it.
Having a clear long-term vision as to what you are trying to achieve with direct to consumer telemedicine is crucial to making sure every implementation decision you make is on track to achieving your goals.
3- Put a “head” on the horse
One of the biggest ways I have seen well-meaning organizations flounder in the roll-out of a large program is not establishing a “head on the horse”. It’s unfortunate because it is probably one of the most avoidable mistakes and easiest steps to implement.
Maintaining a single project manager throughout the implementation of a telemedicine program ensures that nothing falls through the cracks. The project manager should keep track of critical dates and milestones, manage logistical details, keep staff and vendors accountable for action items, and serve as the liaison between the provider and the hospital system. A single point of contact decreases unnecessary churn and decreases the chance of miscommunication along the way, making for a smooth run to the finish line.
4- Establish a task force
When I talk to hospital executives early on, I often hear how hard it is for them to make sure they are asking the right questions. In a meeting with a CEO of a major hospital system, he shared how daunting the implementation process can be by stating simply, “I don’t know what I don’t know.” In an emerging and quickly changing industry like telemedicine, that’s a perfectly valid reservation. It’s hard to keep up with an industry that seems to change weekly, let alone feel confident that you’ve thought through every angle.
My advice in overcoming the challenge of implementing an unknown entity like D2C telemedicine is to utilize your most valuable resource – your people. Establish a task force of pertinent internal stakeholders up front. I recommend assembling the chief medical officer and representatives from marketing, population health, IT, and primary care. When the major sectors of a health system work together, the road to implementation and adoption is almost always smooth. Every angle is thought through, potential obstacles are avoided, and the project is infused with ideas and energy. A diverse task force has the added benefit of creating the necessary buy-in to make the project successful.
5- Choose the right provider
Of all the advice I can give you, this might be the most important. In the world of telemedicine, all providers are not created equal. The old adage is equally true in Telemedicine: you get what you pay for.
While most hospital systems start out looking for a top-of-the-line telemedicine provider, many end up going with a middle-of-the-road vendor due to of cost. While it might feel good in the short-term to go with a lower upfront investment, investing in high-quality providers and the associated program almost always guarantees greater ROI down the line. Below are three critical things to look for when selecting a telemedicine partner:
Make sure the physicians are well-established
For some vendors, any MD is good enough. Rather than spending time and money on recruiting more experienced and specialized physicians, many telemedicine vendors will recruit providers by sending blind emails to physician databases, looking for doctors willing to staff telemedicine calls for minimal pay. When evaluating options, look for a vendor who employs well-established, reputable, board certified physicians. Anything else is a disservice to your patients and could lead to unwanted repercussions.
Local is better
Many national telehealth companies hire physicians from all over the country. If there is high call volume in certain states, they will often get their staff licensed in those states- rather than sourcing local doctors. Essentially, a patient in North Carolina could be receiving medical treatment from a doctor in South Dakota who doesn’t understand the local healthcare resources. In our opinion, local is always better when it comes to medicine. Locally practicing physicians are more attune to the medical trends in their region; they also know the healthcare resources available for patients in their area, providing better continuity of care.
Do a chemistry check
Let’s face it- you want to like the people you work with. And with a project involving a lot of “firsts”, it’s important that you have a dedicated and experienced point of contact on the vendor side. Make sure you know (and like) the person you will be working with during and after the launch of the program. You’ll need to maintain good rapport throughout the project to make sure everything goes off without a hitch.
6- Determine success metrics up front
Introducing any new program to an organization carries inherent risk. In order to exceed expectations rather than shorting them, it’s important to determine what success means to your organization well before the launch date. I have found that the health systems that proactively establish success metrics are more satisfied later on. Have conversations with your vendor on what your key performance indicators are, and come to a mutual agreement on how to track them. Don’t know what data you’ll need? Think through what will be helpful to aid in the decision-making process later on. Even small details like agreeing on a metrics reporting format are helpful to iron out before the program launches.
7- Establish a referral process
One of the biggest hurdles healthcare systems face today is the rate at which patients go out-of-network to fulfill health care needs. It’s a phenomenon widely referred to as “patient leakage”, and it’s a bigger deal than you might think. In fact, experts estimate patient leakage costs an average health care system between 55-65% of revenue annually.
D2C Telemedicine is one of the best and most efficient ways to curb patient leakage. Establish a referral process up front with your telemedicine vendor—when a patient needs follow-up care, the physician can quickly and easily refer them to the appropriate provider within network your network.
Experts say telemedicine will be the norm in just a few short years. But in the meantime, it is still very “new” to most people. When rolling out telemedicine in your health system, it’s important to provide the proper education to the patient population. I’ve found that this often means going above and beyond normal communication methods. To ensure the service will be used, people need to understand it fully: what to expect, how to use, it, and when it is and isn’t appropriate to use.
Make sure your telemedicine vendor is fully on board to participate in the educational process. Trust me, a few templated brochures won’t tip the needle. When I work with health systems, I recommend implementing a coordinated informational campaign that includes:
- A website specifically tailored toward the patient population
- Custom “how to get started” videos
- Multiple town hall style visits with a presentation and Q&A session with a doctor
- Welcome packet with an introductory membership card in a direct mailer
9- Don’t be shy
Once you’ve successfully launched telemedicine in your health system, it’s important to keep the momentum going to ensure optimal adoption. Enlist your marketing team and telemedicine vendor to develop a post-launch marketing campaign that includes welcome emails, newsletters, digital signage, and ongoing town hall visits with the doctor. If you are looking to attract new patients through the program, launch an external marketing campaign highlighting the benefits of the program.
10- Get together regularly
It’s important to establish a regular check-in with your telemedicine provider after the telemedicine program launches. Whether it’s once-a-week or once-a-quarter, get a regular meeting on the calendar where the sole purpose is to check-in. Having time to get together and discuss the status of the program is critical to determine what is working and what can be improved upon. If issues are identified, brainstorm ways to improve them before the next meeting.
Written by Matthew Cox, May 3, 2017
As Head of Sales and Business Development for RelyMD, Matthew Cox is responsible for customer acquisition and program implementation. Mr. Cox develops and manages growth and sales strategies, including marketing and public relations outreach, business development and sales.