Why 2021 Patient Experience Will be Tied to Telehealth Success

How consumers feel about their virtual care encounters will influence everything from CAHPS surveys to compensation beyond the pandemic.

Telehealth’s big, shining moment will be remembered as 2020, when the pandemic precipitated a massive, unexpected shift in healthcare models. Telehealth claim lines increased nearly 3,000% between September 2019 and September 2020, as medical practices and hospitals in coronavirus hotspots were forced to shut clinic doors and address care continuity through remote operations.

Although patients are returning to ambulatory settings, the demand for telehealth is expected to continue in 2021, and potentially grow, as more patients become acclimated to virtual encounters. Recognizing the current trajectory of remote care adoption, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) updated its Clinician and Group CAHPS Survey (CG CAHPS) in response to the large-scale adoption—a movement that has notable implications for payers and healthcare providers.

With CAHPS surveys closely aligned with health plan contracts and compensation, providing a less than optimal experience could be costly. In addition, member satisfaction with telehealth encounters stands to impact customer retention for health plans. For example, a recent national consumer survey found that while telehealth usage is up, a significant knowledge gap exists related to whether these services are available and how to access them.

To remain competitive in the value-based, tech-driven healthcare environment, organizations will need to demonstrate that they are prioritizing patient experience.

What Patients Are Seeking

Healthcare leaders may be surprised to find that patients aren’t primarily driven to telehealth because of safety concerns.

According to SPH Analytics’ ongoing consumer telehealth survey, which measures healthcare experiences, 70% of patients preferred virtual visits over an in-person appointment to save time. This number was the same in early March 2020 as it was in mid-June 2020, after the first wave of COVID-19 shuttered physician offices in many urban, high-volume parts of the country. What’s interesting is that avoiding sick people in the waiting room was the second-most cited reason among patients who preferred virtual visits. This suggests that while COVID-19 was a catalyst for telehealth growth, it’s not the main reason people continue to seek virtual care.

This data shouldn’t surprise us, in light of the increasing consumerization of healthcare. Adults are accustomed to mobile banking transactions and ordering food through apps like Uber Eats: They want the same convenience in their healthcare experience.

A nursing mom with a high fever and aches associated with mastitis, for example, doesn’t want to have to drag herself to an urgent care center to obtain antibiotics. She’d rather connect with a doctor who can quickly treat her. Likewise, a 50-year-old man in the midst of a panic attack doesn’t want to have to call 911 if he can connect with a behavioral health provider virtually.

Tailoring Telehealth to Patient Preferences

Knowing that consumers prefer fast, convenient telehealth encounters is a good starting point. But curating a satisfying, or exceptional, telehealth experience is a bit more nuanced. Convenience isn’t the only factor that will give a health plan or physician practice a leg up.

Here are four tactics organizations should consider when building out an experience-driven telehealth program:

1. Surveys

The CG CAHPS survey digs into consumer sentiment, along with the telehealth experience, to generate meaningful insights. But there are other ways to gauge consumer sentiment ahead of a CAHPS questionnaire. Asking patients to rate the context of visits (e.g., ease of logging into a telehealth encounter, the professionalism of the on-call nurse) can provide valuable data. A pediatric practice might learn, for example, that parents strongly prefer virtual encounters when a visit doesn’t require a clinician to assess vitals, draw blood, or use an otoscope.

2. Smart engagement

Growing a telehealth platform is more than posting a web link. Consumers need to know that telehealth is available, and why they should use it. An effective messaging campaign should align with communication preferences. Patients under 40, for example, may be more responsive to SMS-based messaging that emphasizes telehealth’s efficiency, while Medicare patients who are high risk for coronavirus complications may need more frequent messaging tied to coverage concerns and disease prevention to engage in telehealth.

3. Flexibility

Healthcare organizations need to be open to changes that can foster a more positive patient experience. If, say, patients want the ability to connect with clinicians on weekends, when their practice’s office is closed, the practice may want to partner with a telehealth vendor that employs a roster of on-call physicians with flexible hours.

4. Ongoing analysis and measurement

Launching a program isn’t a one-and-done deal. Healthcare organizations should periodically survey their patients (e.g., every three months) to gauge the effectiveness of any changes or to ensure patients’ telehealth needs are being met. They should also analyze data around telehealth usage to see if any trends emerge (e.g., 90 percent of patients seek virtual care between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m.).

Laying the groundwork now for a high-quality, high-value telehealth program will offer benefits long into the future. A virtual care program that leaves a lasting, positive impression will be one that consumers return to for years to come.

Suzanne Cogan is chief commercial officer of SPH Analytics.