It’s safe to say that telehealth is a big trend in health care. In fact, the American Medical Association (AMA) announced this month that it’s developing a workgroup of more than 50 healthcare experts to “take part in integrating new telehealth technologies and products into the Current Procedural Terminology (CPT®) coding system.” That’s a pretty big deal, but it comes as no surprise, as telehealth continues to evolve and pervade the healthcare industry. Based on a recent market analysis of global telehealth services, forecasters estimate that more than 1.8 million patients will receive care via telehealth by 2017, with the biggest market share coming from post-acute care patients.

This growth has caused some concern regarding patient engagement among those in the healthcare industry. To address that concern, the AMA recently announced a new telehealth policy that establishes guiding principles for telemedicine services. AMA President Dr. Robert M. Wah explains that the organization’s new telehealth policy “‘establishes a foundation for physicians to utilize telemedicine to help maintain an ongoing relationship with their patients, and as a means to enhance follow-up care, better coordinate care and manage chronic conditions.’” But, as we know, outcomes depend heavily on patient engagement, so when providers literally never interact with their patients in a true face-to-face fashion, is it still possible for those patients to become invested in their own health and prescribed plans of care?

If handled poorly, telehealth could make patients feel isolated, unmotivated, and disengaged with both their providers and their care. The good news is that, when done correctly, telehealth can strengthen the patient-provider relationship and better engage patients with their care—thus improving outcomes. Some providers, like Banner Telehealth in Arizona, are already seeing great success in using telehealth to connect patients with a spectrum of providers and allowing those patients to see their own data: “By creating a healthcare team (that includes social workers and health coaches) and working with the patients to show them what's happened, what's happening and what needs to be done, clinicians can involve the patient in their own health care, thus improving compliance and, over time, clinical outcomes.”

And the results of telehealth programs speak for themselves. According to a recent study of knee and hip replacement patients at a hospital in Virginia, the patients who participated in a telehealth program experienced shorter hospital stays, were more likely to be discharged directly home, and responded to post-discharge surveys at a much higher rate (80% compared to about 18%) than the patients who did not participate it the program. Moreover, the national average for hospital readmissions is 6%—but none of the telehealth program participants were readmitted to the hospital within 30 days of their surgeries. Perhaps best of all, more than 90% of the participants said telehealth improved their episode-of-care experiences, helped them better understand and set expectations, and improved their satisfaction with the care they received. Plus, 55% said the program even improved their physician and hospital satisfaction.

Telehealth is a convenient electronic means of providing long-distance health care—and it’s a huge opportunity for healthcare providers looking to diversify revenue and improve patient engagement. Thanks to technology, providers can increasingly reach patients where they are and keep them engaged in their own care. While telehealth is still a relatively new concept, it seems—at least so far—to be an effective tool for improving a patient’s relationship with his or her provider, with his or her own health, and with health care as a whole.

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