By: Terrence D. Sims, Interim CEO & President, Raintree Systems
As the pandemic grinds on, the telehealth industry continues to settle into a more permanent role. Although a decrease was recently seen in telehealth claims – and utilization is much lower than the initial 2020 spike – telehealth has stabilized at a rate 38 times higher than before the COVID-19 outbreak. Though some services will lose waiver status once the pandemic loosens its grip on the public, the growth in the telehealth industry is expected to remain.
We continue to see regulatory changes to help telehealth services become more widely available and expand to post-pandemic. Last year, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma relaxed HIPAA restrictions that previously limited telemedicine as a patient care option. A rapid introduction and approval of dozens of new billing codes were then issued in 2020 to itemize and enable medical professionals to bill Medicare for telehealth services. And now, with the Expanded Telehealth Access Act (HR 2168), introduced to the U.S. House in March, physical, occupational and speech therapies are awaiting legislation for authorization of telehealth beyond the public health emergency. With these changes, the healthcare industry is seeing irrefutable patient satisfaction with telehealth services, particularly in the therapy sector.
Attitudes Towards Telehealth
Increases in telehealth utilization for therapies have resulted in an improvement in attitudes toward telehealth on both a consumer and provider level. A study published in the International Journal of Telerehabilitation also reported high satisfaction among patient recipients of telehealth occupational therapy. The study showed no significant difference in clinical outcome compared to in-person services, demonstrating telehealth’s efficacy. Additionally, 77 percent of occupational therapy practitioners indicated they prefer telehealth as a substitute for in-person appointments and 78 percent are in favor of telehealth remaining as a permanent option for service delivery. These findings are similar across speech and psychotherapy practices. Studies show more than half of participants reporting high and very high satisfaction with tele-speech therapy and over 80 percent satisfaction with telehealth psychiatric care.
While these types of therapies offer a more obvious approach for telehealth implementation, the use of a virtual location becomes questionable within more “hands-on” healthcare fields, such as physical therapy. To gauge this concern, Bay State Physical Therapy teamed up with Northeastern University’s Department of Physical Therapy, Movement and Rehabilitation Sciences to conduct the first of its kind survey. The premise was to understand better how patients were reacting to telehealth platforms within the physical therapy sector. The survey targeted more than 450 patients across 60 physical therapy clinics utilizing telehealth. The results showed that telehealth services are making a positive and lasting impact on the industry and its patients.
The survey reports a 95 percent positive patient satisfaction rating with their telehealth experience. Interestingly, these results mirror the in-clinic patient satisfaction rating of 97 percent, demonstrating that patients are just as satisfied with their telehealth appointments as they are when they go into the doctor’s office. A key driver for the high-ranking was convenience, followed closely by comfort and safety.
One of the most encouraging survey results was the patient satisfaction rating among elderly patients, who many consider being less tech-savvy when operating virtual conferencing programs that are common in telehealth platforms. Of the respondents aged 65 and older, more than 90 percent indicated they were satisfied with their telehealth appointment. Other areas that show encouraging data were that more patients keeping their appointments (i.e., fewer no-show rates) and that the cost of care decreased due to patients completing their care regimen much sooner than in-office therapy visits.
Telehealth Becoming a Staple
As the global pandemic continues to dictate much of our lives, telemedicine has become a viable healthcare offering. With telehealth becoming a staple within the “new normal” of healthcare offerings, the clearer the benefits become, both for patients and healthcare providers. With the ability to provide quality healthcare from a virtual location, physicians are creating additional revenue streams to make up for the loss of in-office patient visits. Not only are they able to offer consultations and some clinical services, but they are also able to see more patients in a single day.
From what we are learning, telehealth is poised for continued growth within the healthcare industry and will be included in a patient’s overall healthcare and treatment plan when applicable. What we do know is that telehealth will not wholly replace in-office visits, especially within healthcare fields requiring hands-on care, such as physical therapy. As the industry utilizes this platform more frequently, there is an expectation for updated best practices to be discovered and shared.
To date, we are learning that the virtual, telehealth platform will likely grow within the physical, occupational and speech therapy industries. The feasibility of real-time, virtual touchpoints with patients appears to be an effective supplement that is an option to conventional methods of modern healthcare delivery. Telehealth, when appropriately used, enables the continuity of care and connection for therapists and their patients.
Terrence Sims is the Interim CEO & President of Raintree Systems, an industry leading software company that provides the most complete, comprehensive, and custom configurable solutions for the healthcare marketplace. Raintree has a proven track record of success and client satisfaction in patient engagement & communications, revenue cycle management (RCM), physical therapy & rehabilitation, rheumatology, pulmonology, ambulatory surgery, behavioral health, long-term pediatric rehabilitation, chiropractic, pain medicine, and billing service sectors. With more than 2,500 implementations and more than 25,000+ users deployed, in more than 50 specialties, our customer base includes commercial, nonprofit and government agencies across the US and Canada. Website: http://www.raintreeinc.com