After being forced to the forefront by the COVID-19 pandemic, tele medicine is here to stay, with major benefits to patients that will only increase as its potential is realized.
That’s the consensus of a panel of experts who spoke Tuesday morning at the Central Penn Business Journal’s Health Care Summit, which was held remotely. Later, a second group of panelists discussed regulatory and legal issues for health care clients and the need for them to be proactive is getting a clear message to the public.
Presenting sponsors for the summit were Highmark, Comcast Business, Capital BlueCross and UPMC; WellSpan Health was the livestream sponsor. Kris Fischer, interim editor of Central Pennsylvania Business Journal, was the moderator.
Consumer health care in the digital world was the topic of the first panel.
“Boy, has tele health ever changed in the last year and a half,” said Dr. Carleen T. Warner, medical director for UPMC Primary Care, Lancaster Region.
Prior to the pandemic, the rate was maybe 100 tele visits a week, she said. Once providers were trained, that number grew to “thousands and thousands.”
“That was kind of a warped speed jump,” Warner said, but it was necessary.
While some patients have chosen to return to office visits, many really like the convenience of tele visits, she said. And that applies to patients of all ages.
“There are lot of things we can do with tele health that we never necessarily thought that we could do,” Warner said.
For example, mental health is an area tele medicine can address, she said, and there has been an explosion in that area during COVID-19. A number of chronic conditions can be managed with tele medicine, too.
“Not everybody wants it but the people that do, it’s really working out well for them,” Warner said.
“When I think about COVID and the emergence of tele health as a major way that we provide care,” said Dr. Jennifer Chambers, senior vice president and chief medical officer of Capital BlueCross, “I … think of the phrase ‘Necessity is the mother of all invention.’ ”
After everything basically shut down because of the pandemic, “we needed to be innovative,” she said.
And their data showed that people with chronic conditions were being managed, as the number of tele health visits skyrocketed.
Providers saw an increase in obesity during this time, Chambers said, and tele visits gave them the chance to discuss nutrition with patients, for example.
Tele visits are also very convenient for those with disabilities, she added. “I really see tele medicine able to advance quality of life” for them.
Dr. Timothy Law, senior medical director for clinical services at Highmark, said the insurer saw a huge increase in tele visits for behavioral and physical health, numbers that have since come down.
In rural communities, the persistent problem is connectivity, he said. When internet access is unavailable, tele visits are done by phone.
Warner agreed that “the digital divide” is a barrier.
Tele medicine, however, is increasing among rural patients, Law said. Hot spot connectivity in local pharmacies, schools or libraries is one way to reach them, he said.
Mark Kandrysawtz, vice president and chief innovation officer at WellSpan Health, said the good news is that about 71% of WellSpan patients want access to tele visits.
“This shows us consumer demand is high,” he said.
The next wave in tele medicine is creating personalized experiences for patients, whether they’re children, seniors, etc. Kandrysawtz called it “increasing relevancy.”
He said the cost won’t be prohibitive because the infrastructure is in place.
Warner said no UPMC providers were forced to offer tele visits but a strictly virtual family practice was opened.
Chambers said standards are still being developed to judge the effectiveness and outcomes of tele visits. “It’s a brand new world.”
In the second panel, Jill Welch, partner and chair with the Barley Snyder Employment Practice Group, said vaccination status and staffing issues were concerns that health care clients are dealing with.
Starting with the attorney disclaimer that she is not offering legal advice, Welch said courts in this pandemic environment increasingly support the right to implement vaccine mandates, especially in health care and education. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has come out similarly, she said.
The caveat is employers need to be mindful of medical and religious exceptions.
John Buffone, senior media relations manager with Gavin, said health care clients also need to be proactive in rebutting public misinformation.
Outreach can take many forms, including virtual town halls, he said.
A social media presence is absolutely vital as well, Buffone said, as there’s “a lot of information flying back and forth.”
“You want to make sure you stand out.”
It’s also imperative not to delay any comment. “Just waiting around doesn’t work,” he said. “You have to be that bastion of trust.”
Buffone said some health care clients are turning to public relations agencies for extra help. The key is “understanding where people are and who they are and how they consume information.”
That might mean trying everything from a billboard on a busy highway to an ad on Spotify to connect with people on a human level, he said.
Being clear with internal communication is important, too, Buffone said, so everyone’s on the same page.
As Welch noted, with health care clients, “each employee is an ambassador of the public trust.”