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A new report from Sage Growth Partners highlights some of the major trends we should expect to see in virtual care in 2023, including a key shift in mindset by many organizational leaders — from growth to optimization.

Instead of focusing on establishing or expanding their virtual care programs, many organizations are now committing to making their program the best it can be. But what does it take to make a good virtual care program a great one?

For me, Sage’s report showcases two key areas of opportunity for organizations looking to optimize their programs’ efficiency, effectiveness and quality: Telehealth workflows and staff workloads.

Key takeaways:

  • Many virtual care organizations are shifting focus from growth to optimization
  • Telehealth workflows and staff workloads are two areas with plenty of optimization opportunities
  • Sage’s survey found that 57% of organizations have not created new workflows specific to telehealth visits, relying on workflows for in-person visits instead
  • Creating telehealth-specific workflows and guidelines, soliciting feedback from staff, and offering timely, personalized training can improve virtual care program efficiency and patient experience
  • Overburdened staff and lack of quality control can negatively impact virtual care program effectiveness and quality

From novel to normal to optimal

Sage’s report reinforces what most healthcare leaders already recognize: Virtual care is no longer a novel solution — it’s now firmly established as a standard (and necessary) part of care delivery.

And while the surge in telehealth adoption that accompanied the pandemic saw many organizations struggling to simply keep the wheels turning on their new or newly-prioritized telehealth programs, many are now shifting their focus from sustainability to optimization.

According to the Sage report, most practices and hospitals are focusing on enhancing their current telehealth programs rather than expanding them. Only about 10% of respondents said their organizations were focused on growing their telehealth offerings, while 70% of practice-based physicians and 56% of hospital executives said they were focused on sustaining or optimizing their programs.

With optimization as the goal, the question becomes where virtual care leaders should focus their efforts for the biggest impact. The Sage report highlights two clear opportunities: creating more efficient telehealth workflows and relieving overburdened support staff and clinical teams.

Building telehealth-specific workflows

While telehealth has become key to care delivery in 2023, many organizations still rely on suboptimal or overly-generalized workflows.
Fifty-seven percent of Sage respondents across both practices and hospitals said they have not yet created new workflows for telehealth visits. Instead, they rely on workflows that mirror in-person visits.

While building workflows unique to virtual care may be impractical for very small telehealth initiatives or organizations just starting a program, it’s essential for virtual care teams looking to create a best-in-class patient and staff experience.

That’s because virtual care visits present an array of unique challenges and considerations compared to in-person visits, especially for staff. Telehealth nurses and other support staff must deal with unique telehealth tech, assess patient health status and determine when to make escalations without a physical exam, manage digital privacy issues and more.

Without clearly-defined, telehealth-specific workflows and guidelines, staff may end up less confident in their work and less able to focus on what matters most: providing quality care. Inevitably, the patient experience suffers.

With this in mind, organizations looking to create a top-tier virtual care program should focus on optimizing workflows by:

  • Soliciting feedback and input from clinical and support staff on the key challenges they face in delivering virtual care
  • Creating and distributing best practices / guidelines designed specifically for the telehealth use case
  • Deputizing telehealth operations managers / stakeholders to oversee and assess the quality and efficiency of a virtual care program
  • Prioritizing comprehensive quality assurance (QA) on telehealth calls to ensure expectations are clear and being met consistently by staff
  • Offering staff timely feedback and training to reinforce standards and expectations
  • Rewarding top performers and leveraging their expertise to build new coaching and training plans
  • Conducting regular audits on team performance, ideally using data drawn from 100% of calls

Overburdened staff and quality control

Managing staff workloads is also crucial to taking a telehealth program to the next level.

Since many types of virtual care require additional administrative steps or patient communications, optimizing processes like note-taking, QA and post-call follow up is key to keeping workloads in check and ensuring staff are focusing on the right inputs.

Perhaps contrary to expectations, Sage’s survey findings suggest that the workload for support staff may increase with the adoption of telehealth, with more than half (52%) of those surveyed from practices saying telehealth has increased their support staff’s workload. Among hospital executives, this sentiment is a bit less pervasive but still common, with 35% saying telehealth increases their staff’s workload.

These workflow and resourcing challenges are also likely driving an increase in outsourcing of telehealth administration, as Sage’s survey notes that 20% of hospitals currently use a third party to deliver telehealth services and 44% plan to change their administering party over the next two years.

While outsourcing telehealth administration is one method of optimizing care delivery, it’s far from ideal. That’s because handing over telehealth administration to a third party requires organizations to give up a key ingredient in creating a positive patient experience: Quality control.

Instead of handing telehealth administration over to third parties due to limited resources, telehealth leaders should consider how investing in internal processes and tooling could free up overburdened staff and allow them to focus more attention on patients.

Technology like conversation intelligence software could play a key role here, enabling time- and energy-saving optimizations like:

  • Automatically transcribing virtual care calls and extracting key points of discussion for easier note-taking and follow-up
  • Automating tedious manual processes like call notes and QA audits
  • Surfacing relevant resources for staff in real time during calls (such as knowledge base articles or key points of contact)
  • Generating reports and dashboards that score call quality and give managers insight into team performance

Bottom line: Optimization is the name of the game in 2023

For organizations looking to take their virtual care program to the next level in 2023, optimization — not expansion — will be key. Building telehealth-specific workflows and feedback loops and using technology to free up staff time and energy for patients are two key optimizations worth exploring. And luckily, conversation intelligence can be a huge difference-maker on both fronts.

 

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Waleed Mohsen

Author Waleed Mohsen

Waleed Mohsen is the CEO and founder of Verbal. He has been named a UCSF Rosenman Innovator and has over 10 years of experience working with leaders of hospitals and medical institutions in his business development roles at Siemens and Cisco

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