Mitchell Fong, Director of Telehealth for Renown Health in Reno, Nev.
Since embarking on my graduate research study on telehealth in 2011, I have dedicated my career to the expansion of telehealth services in both urban and rural areas of Nevada. This has been an extremely rewarding journey, and I cannot imagine a more exciting time to be in the field of telehealth.
OVERCOMING THE STIGMA
The biggest challenge we seem to run into in telehealth is the stigma that patients and providers may associate with it—many believe the quality of care is reduced if delivered virtually. Luckily, that stigma is beginning to shift with more research and exposure to digital medicine’s effectiveness to provide high-quality health care. Patients are beginning to see the unmatched value telehealth affords them, as it allows them access to top-notch care when and where they need it.
CARING FOR UNDERSERVED POPULATIONS
Telehealth has been critical in delivering care not only to urban settings but to underserved communities as well. These communities may struggle to recruit and retain physicians because they are low income or less populated, making it difficult to sustain a successful practice. Leveraging telehealth has been an instrumental way to act as a force multiplier and extend health care to these communities.
For example, we work with one healthcare system that has no employed specialty care providers. Therefore, we set out to create a partnership to offer them telehealth services in specialty care areas such as cardiology, nephrology, and rheumatology. Now, instead of driving a few hours into the city to be seen by a provider, patients can go to a local facility, be presented by a healthcare professional, and be seen by one of our specialists without having to travel.
PHYSICIAN CHAMPIONS ON YOUR SIDE
Of course, finding providers dedicated to excellence in telehealth is critical to expanding the field of telemedicine. Providers who understand telemedicine demonstrate parity in the way they treat in-person and virtual encounters. Those who are willing to embrace and enhance new forms of technology, are the physician champions you need on your side. The goal of the technology is to augment the care providers can deliver, increasing the efficiency and quality of care.
The long-term success of telehealth depends on our providers’ ability to provide meaningful feedback and invest time to make sure technology meets their clinical needs in a user-friendly interface. In turn, it is our job to listen and evolve with them and offer support every step of the way. We look for providers who are willing to work on their website to ensure a seamless patient experience. We teach our providers proper online etiquette through various educational tools when going in front of a camera to offer telemedicine. Our ultimate goal is for patients to feel like they are in the same room as their provider despite being miles apart.
NAVIGATING TELEHEALTH AMID THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC AND BEYOND
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a significant disrupter that has pushed telemedicine three to five years ahead of its previously estimated trajectory. One of the positives that has come out of this pandemic is the willingness for more patients and providers to try telehealth. Before COVID-19, I know many providers who would never even consider offering telehealth. Fast forward to today, and they never want to work without it. It is powerful hearing these contrasting viewpoints just a few months apart—a testament to the ever-changing times we live in.
Looking to the future, I predict the term telehealth will go away, as virtual services will no longer be labeled under their own category. When people think of healthcare, they will automatically associate it with all the in-person and virtual care options they have available at all times. I foresee all service lines will be available with a virtual component, and telehealth will become integrated entirely into modern-day healthcare.
Until that day, and as telehealth continues to evolve, we see an influx in technology companies getting into healthcare with virtual medicine being at the forefront quicker now than ever. No matter how unconventional an idea may seem, always be open to learn more and explore the latest innovations in the field. When presenting new ideas, you will likely receive some pushback from your providers, leadership, and community. Change can be difficult for everyone, especially if the shift disturbs the normal way of doing things. Remember that the best endeavors are often those that require some convincing. You will face challenges and setbacks. However, helping patients receive convenient, streamlined access to the care they need and deserve makes it all worth it