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September 21, 2022 // Bridget Mahoney  //       //  Opinion

Post-Pandemic Telehealth: Three Key Considerations for Communicators

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was virtually all talk and no action when it came to telehealth (pun intended). Patients were intrigued by the idea of connecting with care at the touch of a button, but most were too nervous to follow through and engage online with healthcare professionals. Similarly, many providers expressed high levels of interest in diversifying care delivery models, but ultimately most found the regulatory and reimbursement barriers to entry were simply too high to make telehealth a priority. 

Fast forward a little more than two years, and due to a combination of relaxed regulations and the urgent need for more diverse and creative care models, telehealth has become the most cited and broadly applicable example of technology that benefited from “the COVID acceptance curve.” The market has become incredibly crowded – from incumbents, such as Amwell and Teledoc, to healthcare outsiders, such as Walmart and Verizon, to emerging tech leaders, such as CityBlock and Homeward Health, that personalize healthcare by offering both virtual and in-person options.  

In a recent Allison+Partners survey of 500 health tech leaders, telehealth – along with automation, data connectivity solutions, and remote patient monitoring/diagnostic – was predicted to be one of the technologies that will play the biggest role in continuing to advance the industry post-pandemic. The seemingly endless list of new entrants in the space indicates this prediction is likely to pan out. But with increased activity and a flood of new players comes a whole new set of questions about virtual care, as well as new challenges for the brands putting this offering forward. 

As questions arise about the validity of various telehealth business models, the marketing and communications professionals tasked with storytelling must prove their companies are not just jumping on the bandwagon and trying to profit off a trend. Rather, they must demonstrate the long-term value and real-world impact of their solutions, including proving the backend technology that powers their platforms is sophisticated enough to produce a seamless patient experience on the frontend. 

Based on our research and our deep experience in the health tech industry, we’ve identified the following three areas of focus for successful telehealth storytelling. The ability to knowledgeably address these topics can help a brand break through and stand out in a sea of competitors. 

The future is of health is hybrid, with both virtual and in-person options 

Healthcare has been notoriously slow to adopt technology that’s now the norm in other sectors and that offers the convenient experience consumers have come to expect today. But the pandemic was a watershed moment, pushing the industry to quickly reimagine care delivery and better cater to consumers’ needs. This resulted in accelerated adoption of technologies like telehealth, which previously struggled to gain traction.  

Patients and providers are now more closely aligned in embracing digital solutions and making them part of the healthcare experience. Providers and health systems are forging ahead with more diverse care options, recognizing the need to personalize health journeys and deliver custom care plans. Providers and insurers recognize the need to meet people where they are, which means offering both in-person and online care options. We now see many companies racing to offer a 360-degree care delivery experience – take the recent buzz around CVS shelling out $8 billion for home health giant Signify Health. Healthcare has finally come around to innovating around the patient experience, and it’s important to demonstrate flexibility and personalization in communications, informed by the knowledge of where the industry is heading.  

Healthcare storytellers in this space must understand this narrative and find ways to demonstrate their brand plays an active role in expanding patient care options.  

Today’s telehealth use cases go beyond urgent care and online therapy 

The impact of telehealth is no longer limited to the original use cases of urgent care (e.g., parents taking advantage of after-hours virtual care options to obtain prescriptions for things like sinus infections and earaches) and online therapy. These use cases remain popular, but virtual care’s capabilities now extend much further, with several innovative use cases being tested right now to provide more flexible options for diverse health needs. For example, take the joint venture between telehealth leader Amwell and world-renowned health system Cleveland Clinic. Through this JV, patients can access second opinions with the country’s leading physicians from the comfort of their own homes, eliminating the inconvenience and high cost of travel. 

Chronic conditions are another area telehealth increasingly impacts. More than half of U.S. adults have at least one chronic condition, such as diabetes, substance abuse disorders and eating disorders. These patients can benefit from additional touchpoints offered via virtual care, and many telehealth programs have emerged with the goal of treating these conditions. Equip and PursueCare are just two of many examples.   

While virtual chronic care is relatively new, the results are promising. A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry showed people who received telehealth services to treat opioid use disorders were less likely to overdose and had better retention for related medications. Of course, chronic condition treatments cannot be limited to virtual visits, but the addition of a virtual component appears to lead to better outcomes. And positive results like this prove the massive impact telehealth can play across diagnoses, including the most pressing health problems faced today. 

Healthcare storytellers should focus on educating key audiences about the innovation in the space and the wide range of medical conditions that can benefit from the addition of virtual care.  

The value of a telehealth offering is determined by the strength of the backend technology powering the platform 

Despite the rapid rise and evolution of telehealth platforms that connected people to providers amid the pandemic, many of same pain points that existed pre-pandemic continue to plague virtual encounters.  

While full of promise, there’s still much to be done to achieve telehealth’s full potential, and the tech infrastructure that powers these platforms is the key to virtual care cementing into the future of care delivery. In fact, the main finding of Allison+Partners’ recent research on the evolving health tech space was that the industry is primed for a pendulum swing from B2C to B2B solutions, pointing to a tangible need for more sophisticated technologies across the board.  

As telehealth strives to be an alternative to in-person care, it should be elevated to feel as effective as a visit to the doctor’s office, not like the virtual work meetings many people are accustomed to. Streaming glitches and technical failures, such as the ubiquitous, “you’re on mute,” shouldn’t plague these important appointments – the experience should feel seamless. An often-overlooked aspect of this virtual patient-provider experience is the fact that not everyone has access to or the technological savvy to inherently navigate telehealth platforms. So, while the backend technology powering the platforms needs to be quite sophisticated, the frontend user experience should be simple. 

The shortcomings of current telehealth platforms aren’t exclusive to the point of care. The steps to get to a virtual appointment are just as important as the appointment experience itself. Yet hybrid schedules consisting of in-person and virtual visits are still hard for healthcare providers to manage, and often the systems they use for scheduling or storing patient records still aren’t interoperable with telehealth platforms. Strong, backend technologies are essential to overcoming these obstacles and creating a smoother experience for providers and patients alike. Not to mention the value of ensuring the larger healthcare system is moving toward the hybrid care models we know patients want. 

While healthcare storytellers obviously don’t control the development of their company’s backend technology, they are empowered to speak to their progress against the goal of achieving a seamless experience, and they should share the steps their company takes.   

Food for thought as the telehealth space continues to evolve 

The telehealth space is currently plagued with similar messages from a slew of different players. It’s up to the marketing and communications teams at these companies to tell brand stories that break through and offer a future-looking perspective. In our recent report on the health tech landscape, we’ve included an entire section on how to effectively tell healthcare stories. For these tips and additional insight on what it will take to achieve an excellent patient experience, download our report, “Health Tech’s Post-Pandemic Pivot.”  

Bridget Mahoney is a senior account executive based in New York, where she supports clients’ thought leadership platforms through executive visibility strategy and media relations efforts. 

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