It’s easy to see why you should start offering telemedicine services at your practice, but it can be hard to evaluate software solutions. Do you want a system that integrates with Electronic Medical Records (EMRs)? How do you make sure it’s HIPAA-compliant? What pricing model aligns with your budget? What the heck is a virtual waiting room?
In this Buyer’s Guide, we’ll help you answer all of these questions and more so you can offer virtual consultations through a new system as soon as possible.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Before we start talking about software, we need to address our use of the term "telemedicine," since it can refer to a variety of scenarios where health care services and information are delivered through technology, including the following examples:
Though all of these can be telemedicine use cases, most software solutions focus on facilitating virtual care between patients and physicians through videoconferencing and secure messaging. In order to align our Buyer’s Guide with the health IT market, we’ll also be referring to telemedicine software as technology to enable remote patient-physician interactions through online video and messages.
In a Gartner report (which is available to Gartner clients), analysts predict that one-quarter of all care in the U.S. will be delivered virtually by 2020. While adoption rates may not rise quite that quickly in your part of the country, it’s clear that there’s increasing demand for virtual care, and it can only benefit your practice if you start incorporating telemedicine software sooner rather than later.
In a Software Advice survey of U.S. patients who have never participated in a telemedical visit, 75 percent tell us they are at least "moderately interested" in having a video consultation instead of an in-person visit for a minor health issue, such as a rash or cold symptoms.
Because industry experts and patients both see value in this tech, you have a good chance of increasing revenue after implementing it. For example, you can expand your patient panel by seeing patients who live in rural areas and extend your office hours without adding staff or overhead costs.
In addition to the financial benefits, there are clinical advantages to practicing telemedicine. Because it’s more convenient for patients to schedule a telemedicine appointment, they are more likely to seek treatment from a primary care physician or specialist. The earlier you can detect a health issue, the better chance a patient has of responding favorably to the treatment plan.
Here are some additional advantages from our report, "Telemedicine Benefits Small Practices Can Capitalize On":
You can’t just open a Skype account and expect it to meet your needs for virtual care delivery. In addition to EMR integration (which we’ll cover in detail in the next section), a telemedicine platform should offer many of these functionalities:
|Encryption/security protocols||Data security features, such as encryption, make it possible to keep sensitive patient data safe and private for all your online consultations.|
|Videoconferencing||Enables face-to-face interactions on a computer or mobile device with high quality video and audio. Some solutions also allow screen sharing and multiway video so third parties (such as caregivers or translators) can also participate in a virtual consultation.|
|Instant message chat||Allows doctors to exchange text-based messages with patients in real time before, during or after an appointment.|
|Appointment setting||Patients are able to schedule telemedical appointments themselves by logging onto the system and selecting an available time slot from a calendar provided by your staff.|
|Billing||Collect insurance information and process payments for each encounter.|
|Virtual waiting room||A customizable site that allows patients to wait for a digital appointment to begin. You can add pictures or videos for patients to see while they stand by.|
|Clinical documentation||Document patient encounters with digital notes and/or charts.|
|E-prescribing||Create and send prescriptions to a patient’s pharmacy of choice.|
You have two main choices when it comes to telemedicine software: a stand-alone platform or an EMR suite that includes telemedicine functions in addition to other applications, such as accounting or a patient portal.
The easiest way to figure out which option is best for you is to determine whether it’s the right time to invest in a new EMR.
If so, it makes sense to choose a system that already has telemedicine functions built-in. Maybe you’ve been planning on replacing your current EMR, or perhaps you’re starting a new practice. Either way, it shouldn’t be tough to build a shortlist of solutions that fit the bill.
A growing number of EMR vendors are acquiring or partnering with companies that exclusively focus on facilitating telemedicine services. As a result, it’s much easier to use a single system for all your clinical services and documentation needs without having to do duplicate data entry.
Pricing for this kind of setup is significantly different from vendor to vendor. Cost estimates will largely depend on the size of your practice and how many applications you want to include in your software suite.
Since it’s possible to update health records seamlessly, telemedicine-enabled EMRs are best for practices that plan to offer virtual consultations to existing patients. However, even though that’s the desirable route, it doesn’t totally exclude practices hoping to attract new patients online through the telemedicine software (more details about that scenario below).
Examples of telemedicine EMRs:
Practitioners who are happy with their current EMR solution can always check with their vendor to see if the company now offers a telemedicine module or easily integrates with a third-party telemedicine solution. Keep in mind additional fees may apply for the added module.
The alternative is investing in a stand-alone telemedicine platform that may not interface with your EMR. That’s totally OK in many cases. Most stand-alone platforms allow you to schedule, bill and request medical histories from patients, so you don’t need an integrated EMR or practice management system for any of that.
Some stand-alone platforms even attract patients for you. Here’s how it works: Patients sign up for a virtual appointment with the first available doctor on the telemedicine platform and then they’re matched with you or another provider on the same platform. In this model, practitioners serve as independent contractors who are paid a percentage of whatever the patient pays per visit.
That service is optional for some stand-alone telemedicine systems, so the cost of ownership will again vary significantly from vendor to vendor. However, many systems charge a monthly subscription fee per physician for access to the software.
Examples of stand-alone telemedicine software:
Here are some important factors to think about before you implement a telemedicine solution:
HIPAA compliance. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is a series of mandates that protect patient records against unauthorized access. You’re off to a good start if you’re evaluating telemedicine solutions that have the security protocols we described in our features table above, but that’s just the first step to achieving HIPAA compliance. In order to safeguard patient privacy and security while abiding by the law, you need to conduct a risk assessment. That is an overview of your current security measures and potential vulnerabilities. You can find out how to put together a risk assessment here.
Regulatory requirements. Telemedicine regulations are still being worked out in legislatures across the country. As health IT writer Cathy Reisenwitz recommends, "you may want to look into resources like the ATA State Telemedicine Legislative & Regulatory Trackers for updates on telemedicine policy. Regulations vary by state, so you need to research how insurance companies cover telehealth visits in your area."
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