Direct-to-Consumer Telehealth Requires Careful Planning, Preparation

Direct-to-consumer telehealth may seem like an easy way for health systems and hospitals looking to join the wave of connected health options, but caution is needed.

First, a DTC telehealth platform needs to appeal to consumers, some of whom might not be familiar with the concept. It also needs to be easy to use and fit into the workflow for doctors and nurses on the other end. And that can be a problem.

“Often clients don’t really know what they’re getting into,” said Jay Backstrom, digital imaging and telehealth practice leader for Chicago-based Impact Advisors. “A lot of people know about it, but they probably don’t know what they should. Don’t lead with it.”

Despite this warning, many hospitals and health systems are launching telehealth platforms as a means of reducing stress on emergency departments and doctors’ offices, with the goal of reducing unnecessary in-person traffic by offering virtual visits. Business owners and insurance companies are positive about the idea and are working with telehealth vendors such as American Well to create on-demand services for members and employees.

There are many of these projects that succeed, but just as many that struggle or even fail. When they do, it’s often because the service fails to attract enough customers.

“You’re definitely going to be underwhelmed before you’re going to be overwhelmed,” said Shayan Vyas, MD, medical director of telemedicine for the Nemours Children’s Hospital. That hospital launched its own telemedicine service, CareConnect, in 2015.

“Utilization does take time,” said Peter Antall, founder and chief medical officer of the Online Care Group at American Well, one of the nation’s largest telehealth providers. Health care providers launching new telehealth platforms should expect anywhere between 5 percent and 30 percent of their patent population to move to digital health at the onset, he added.

DTC platforms have to be designed with ease of use in mind: an easy registration process that moves the patient smoothly to a virtual visit. Another challenge lies in getting support from the doctors and nurses who will be at the end of the online visit or phone call—thus, the telemedicine platform needs to appeal to them as much as it appeals to the patient, and it needs to be intuitive and easy so that it fits into providers’ daily routines.

Backstrom recommends that hospitals and health systems that haven’t tried DTC telehealth start out with a small program in one department and build from there. It’s also critical to know what questions to ask and where to find the answers before beginning a telehealth program.

Once a health system has reached a point where telehealth is accepted and standardized, and a business plan for a DTC telehealth service is clear, then it’s time to launch.

“Do it for the right reasons and at the right time,” he says.

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