Lori Prestesater shares three key factors that should be taken into consideration if healthcare providers are to continue along their trajectory towards being truly digitally driven

Digitally delivered healthcare saw significant changes during the pandemic – but are these innovations here to stay? Telehealth can be more efficient, give patients more control over their care and, importantly, many patients now prefer virtual to in-person appointments.

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Healthcare systems globally have an opportunity to be beneficiaries of this burgeoning technology. As shown in the recent COVID-19 Telehealth Impact Study by the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition, of which the American Medical Association is a contributing organisation, three key factors should be taken into consideration if healthcare providers, such as the NHS, are to continue along their trajectory towards being truly digitally driven.

1. Nationwide digital equity

Firstly, work must be done to bridge the digital divide for telehealth to be considered a sustainable and inclusive approach to care, starting with the widespread provision of broadband coverage and devices for older people and those on low incomes. But access alone won’t enable equity, as not all patients have the skills needed to benefit from these technologies. In the United States, for example, one in four people may not have digital literacy skills to engage in video visits, so we must find solutions to support these communities with improved access and education. Where specific telehealth platforms are used, these can be appropriately designed to address the audio, visual and motor impairment needs of older patients and those living with disabilities.

2. Full integration into care pathways

Adjusting the way telehealth is thought about allows the full range of benefits to be accessed. Instead of using telehealth as an acute solution to the challenges faced during the pandemic, it can be an enduring tool to increase access to care for patients who have a hard time seeing a physician in person due to mental, physical, or logistical limitations. Care pathways can be fully reimagined for the benefit of patients. One example of how to embed telehealth is the work we’ve done at the AMA. To integrate telemedicine as quickly as possible during the pandemic, we created a Telehealth Implementation Playbook that offers a clear path to scaled implementation, and access to institutional knowledge and best practices curated from experts in the field.

3. Future-facing infrastructure

To ensure telehealth is here to stay, seamless integration of physical and digital services must be underpinned by the right infrastructure. Electronic patient records and interoperable data entry are critical to providing the best care for patients, reducing physician burden, and enabling sustainable health systems. Specifically, optimal clinical coding enables the integration of telehealth and in-person care. A common set of clinical codes, like the Current Procedural Terminology (CPT®), allows for global standards and interoperability. This also supports consistent and improved care and research.

The surge in uptake of telehealth happened at an unbelievable pace. To embed telehealth for the long-term, it is essential that we improve digital equity, ensure true integration into care pathways and future-proof infrastructure. Technology should be an asset, not a burden that exacerbates inequities, and ultimately make it easier to provide care.

An additional resource for HSJ readers: The AMA Telehealth Immersion Program

The Telehealth Immersion Program, part of the STEPS Forward Innovation Academy, is the American Medical Association (AMA)’s newest offering to guide physicians, practices, and health systems in optimising and sustaining telehealth at their organisations.