ATA 2020 was this year’s annual conference hosted by the American Telehealth Association. The ATA is the only organization completely focused on advancing telehealth.
ATA 2020 has been a fascinating look into the potential and future of telehealth in the US healthcare system. Attending professionals and leaders have access to hours of talks with thought leaders. Attendees will likely bring back a wealth of insights as they return to their organizations. For those that couldn’t attend, here are our top five takeaways.
The Opportunity for Change Is Larger Than the Explosive Growth
Thanks to COVID-19, many experts now agree that telehealth and virtual care was underused before COVID-19. However, ATA 2020 attendees will know that technology wasn’t the primary holdup. Telehealth simply wasn’t a priority before it was the only way to safely see patients.
COVID-19 has created a moment similar to the 1973-1974 oil crisis. After the oil crisis, the US energy industry restricted itself to maximize oil production and ensure we never again experience a national shortage. This moment could help ensure patients never again experience a shortage of access to healthcare.
The current pandemic crisis has put telehealth in the spotlight and temporarily removed some regulatory and bureaucratic hurdles. The healthcare industry will certainly work to solidify some of these gains and come into long-term compliance with others. But it will need to make the most of the moment.
Heightened exposure to telehealth will likely be a long-term gain. However, healthcare systems will need to work with the government and payers to reach long term regulatory and payment agreements. Some issues, such as disagreements on reimbursement between providers and payers, may reemerge once the pandemic ends.
Conversational Agents will Supercharge Telehealth
Conversational agents were a major topic at ATA 2020. This technology interacts with patients through conversations. This includes text chatbots and vocal spoken word equivalents. These agents use Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology to “understand” users and make responses.
Binary Fountain users will already be familiar with NLP and may have heard how Steward Medical used it to analyze their telemedicine surveys. They discovered their providers were receiving positive feedback around their webside manner.
The NLP powered conversation agents will revolutionize American telemedicine by eliminating provider administrative burden. Chatbots are already capable of being the first point of contact for patients seeking care. Chatbots can gather patient information and answer standard questions.
Conversational agents can also direct patient traffic through healthcare systems. If the agent determines that a virtual or in-person exam is necessary, it can even direct patients to the correct specialist.
Conversational agents could also help providers during live telehealth examinations. Vocal NLP technology could take notes on patients as they speak to providers, reducing their administrative burden. Dedicated telehealth platforms can help further by packaging the patient information and transferring it to the next provider automatically.
Vocal conversational agents will even assist in-person staff. Product development is underway for an Amazon Alexa-like tool to reduce the burden on nurses. The devices will answer simple questions like “what’s on the menu for dinner” and “when are visiting hours?”
Patients may also be able to make requests or alert the staff to sudden changes in their condition. This system saves nurses the task of figuring out what the patient needs and prioritizing their requests.
This could streamline simple tasks such as needing a new pillow. It would cut response times in high priority situations, such as a patient experiencing sudden health changes.
Some Healthcare Systems Will Need to Re-Platform After COVID-19
COVID-19 forced healthcare systems to institute multi-month changes in a matter of days. Many healthcare IT teams did incredible work to achieve this for their institutions. Of course, some of their solutions will not be appropriate for long-term implementation.
Some of the video platforms currently being used for telehealth are common video conferencing tools. As a result, most are not HIPPA compliant. Tools not specifically designed for telehealth do not have integration features with other common healthcare software for information sharing.
HIPPA compliance and other regulations have been relaxed for now. Eventually, the security issues will have to be addressed once COVID-19 subsides. However, software integration for information sharing will likely be a long-term concern for health care systems.
Diversity Will Be Key to Success
Currently, many telehealth tools are designed for higher-level income individuals. This is common for developing tech products. However, looking forward, telehealth will need to grow its base to service large payers and their inclusive member networks.
Telehealth must be developed to engage all groups, all genders, ethnicities, income levels, and levels of health and technological literacy.
The groups designing telehealth software and supporting hardware need to be staffed with diversity in mind. We’re in an age of precision medicine, so these tools will need to work across the industry for all patients. We’ll need diverse voices at the drawing board to ensure the technology can hyper-focus on all health issues.
We can look to tech products as a warning as to what happens when developers lack diversity. Non-diverse developers have created facial recognition software with a preference for white men and racist AI.
Clearly, we cannot allow discrimination in health care, and diversity will be key to preventing it. Organizations with actionable diversity policies will likely create the best upcoming product options.
Telehealth Will Graft into the Nervous System of Healthcare
COVID-19 has helped normalize the industry adoption of telehealth as a new means for providers to see their patients. This function alone has the potential to improve the lives of both parties. But telehealth has the potential to do so much more.
Telehealth enhanced by conversational agents can help health systems coordinate and orchestrate care. NLP powered technology could assist providers during virtual and in-person care, and even take over some administrative tasks. Thanks to NLP, chatbots will be able to near-entirely take over patient intake.
This high potential could make telehealth become the front door of healthcare and assist throughout the entire patient journey. Telehealth tools will be able to save, package, and circulate the data they collect as patients move through the health system. It’ll cut down on provider administrative burden and increase the quality of patient care. Maybe most importantly, it’ll expand healthcare access and help to ensure that no patient “slips through the cracks.”
ATA 2020 made it clear that the future of healthcare is connected health, and telehealth could help us achieve it.
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