Telehealth for All

Once a “nice-to-have,” accessible digital healthcare solutions will be imperative to help fill crucial gaps in healthcare systems around the world facing serious strains
By Tyler Teisberg and Viral Shah

Global healthcare systems are facing unprecedented challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic. Even as many countries are seeing a “flattening of the curve,” hospitals are still struggling to meet the needs of COVID-19 patients, leaving many other patients and healthcare workers fearful for their health and safety. Additionally, in order to keep this curve flat, we must encourage people to continue to practice social distancing in order to keep us all safe and healthy. In this situation, telehealth and digital therapeutics systems—which providers once offered mainly as added-value perks—have become critically important. The development and implementation of innovative telehealth tools will help keep essential workers safe, maintain crucial medical services for those with chronic illness or medical needs outside of COVID-19, and increase the efficiency and efficacy of our hospitals and health centers while we weather this global pandemic together. But with digital tools having historically low adoption across healthcare, how can we ensure we’re creating the right tools not just for the moment, but for the future?

 

Why telehealth? Why now?

The case for telehealth is strong. According to a recent report from the Primary Care Collaborative, nearly half of all primary care offices surveyed across the US report being unsure if they have enough cash to keep practices open. 42 percent have already laid off or furloughed staff, and more than half lack personal protective equipment (PPE). Such a reduction in primary care capacity could be devastating, especially in rural areas—often considered “primary care deserts”—where up to a quarter of all hospitals were already in danger of closing the coronavirus, according to the Becker Hospital Review. The Department of Health and Human Services projects that the coronavirus has exacerbated this trend, with many hospitals reporting that their cash reserves are depleting rapidly enough to further interfere with operations already interrupted by shortages of equipment, PPE and staff. That could mean thousands of general practitioners, internists, pediatricians, urgent care providers and geriatricians are sidelined, at a time when we may be faced with unprecedented levels of need above and beyond consistently high demand and low supply.

 

Tools for people—not just patients

Having an extensive track record working with healthcare partners across the industry, as well as a diverse roster of clients in fields where digital tools have been more readily adopted, like financial services, we understand that a major reason adoption has been low for healthcare lies within human behavior—not the technology itself. This is why a human-centered approach will be so crucial for companies looking to digital solutions in the coming months. In order to ensure mass adoption of these new tools by both patients and providers, we must first understand our patients and physicians as people in order to best serve them with solutions that will make a real impact.

We know that there is rarely a “one-size-fits-all” solution when it comes to something as sensitive and complex as healthcare, which is why we often start programs with in-depth design research that helps us to identify the user and their needs. We’re then able to identify the right set of tools and design a solution that works for the given audience—not just for the power users or “tech-savvy” elite, but for all demographics. Through this experience and research, we’ve identified three major benefits of implementing digital tools in the healthcare landscape:

 

  1. Convenience and Access.At a time when it’s important to avoid unnecessary clinic and hospital visits, virtual care can be an effective triage tool for providers to identify non-COVID patients who need in-person care. But beyond the current crisis, virtual triage or consultations have huge benefits across social-economic divides by providing financial and geographic access, as well as on-demand and after hours care. Being able to see a doctor from the comfort of your home means less additional expenses for things like travel, time off work or childcare. It also means access to more care options for those in areas with few medical facilities, and the ease of knowing you can fit your healthcare visit into your own schedule.
  2. Safety and Privacy. For many high-risk patients, it may not be safe to enter a medical facility for some time. At–home care allows these patients uninterrupted service without compromising their health or safety, especially critical given the widespread lack of PPE. These services can also help aid social distancing measures, keeping people at home, and in turn keeping each other healthy. The ability to speak to a clinician privately is also crucial for those with sensitive health needs, such as sexual, reproductive or mental health, who may not feel comfortable or have access to those services in person. Additionally, remote mental health care services will become increasingly important, with some studies suggesting that up to 5-10 percent of adults may show clinically significant signs of depression or anxiety during or after the pandemic.
  3. Enhanced Care. When coupled with remote monitoring devices, data integration, and contextually relevant insights, there is an opportunity to enhance the quality of care provided. From the ability to show the doctor what you are eating with a peek into a fridge to a tracker that logs your daily steps or intake, these connected data and insights could make a huge difference for many—especially those dealing with chronic illness. Telehealth offers physicians and patients alike an opportunity to stay connected between appointments, thereby eliminating many gaps in care that may result between traditional interactions.

 

Telehealth in action

Despite these benefits, many physicians and providers have still been slow to adopt digital tools, mainly because it requires them to develop new workflows, and until recently, many were unable to be reimbursed for telehealth visits. However, in recent months, practices across the U.S. have had to develop entirely new workflows to triage and treat patients safely, including the use of digital tools like Zoom, or DocuSign. Likewise, many insurers since have created new guidelines that allow for telehealth visits to be reimbursed. So how can we learn from this “forced adoption” that’s working exceptionally well in the moment, so that we can scale across practices into a better future healthcare model?

frog and its healthcare-industry partners are already working on scalable and innovative telehealth solutions to help address the COVID crisis. Recently, frog worked with one of China’s largest tech companies to develop a remote health monitoring service that enables clinicians to safely identify and isolate patients who may have coronavirus, without requiring them to present in person for care. By handling aspects of initial triage virtually, providers can reduce infection risk for both doctors and patients while simultaneously reducing the burden on hospitals. To help increase the accessibility of virtual healthcare services, we’ve also developed the Telehealth Toolbox, a collection of guidelines and practical tools that aims to accelerate the adoption of telehealth practices by primary care physicians during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially those in rural areas.

We believe that such telehealth services will form the foundation for a new human-centered healthcare model that will not only help us cope with COVID-19, but will prove lasting benefits far beyond. Prior to COVID, frog’s work with a major U.S. healthcare organization indicated that up to 84 percent of patients would prefer virtual services for some types of healthcare appointments, such as refilling a prescription. Many medical procedures can only happen in person, which means healthcare providers are likely to offer a blended service model in the foreseeable future. But by fulfilling many routine and chronic care needs virtually, providers can offer the convenience many patients desire while helping hospitals more efficiently deploy their staff and resources.

In the race to develop and deploy telehealth tools that support our global healthcare system’s fight against coronavirus, however, we must remember the human stakes involved. Anxiety and uncertainty are high, and it’s unclear when and if the relationship between patients and providers will ever return to “normal.” That’s why new digital healthcare tools must be designed not only to address the logistical challenges of the current crisis, but the social and personal needs of the people living through it. Through skills like design research and radical empathy, human-centered design will ensure the digital healthcare tools we create now will remain relevant and desirable beyond COVID, continuing to deliver better healthcare experiences and outcomes for everyone, patients and providers alike.

Authors
Tyler Teisberg
Strategist, frog Austin

As a Strategist at frog, Tyler works collaboratively with clients to create novel products and services that deliver high value for both people and companies. With a background in anthropology and venture capital, Tyler combines deep empathy for the human experience and business lenses to design optimal products and experiences.

Viral Shah
Strategy Director, frog San Francisco

As Strategy Director at frog, Viral focuses on helping clients define and achieve their business objectives while pioneering innovative products and services for their customers. In today’s world, where consumers are more discerning than ever before, Viral believes the future is ripe for those that can create products and services that consumers want—well before they know they even want it.