March 17, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced that Medicare will pay for telehealth services provided to beneficiaries “in any healthcare facility and in their home” and won’t enforce the established-relationship rule.

COVID-19 has caused a significant number of deaths, and because there still is much to learn about it, the uncertainty scares both residents and the general public. Healthcare workers within the independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing segments do not have all the answers. Despite the changes occurring every day, understanding telehealth must be a priority within your organization, at the very least during this crisis.

Telehealth can be helpful in evaluating residents and patients in senior living and care settings to decide who needs to be seen in the hospital or an alternative setting such as an urgent care center or who needs to be isolated to prevent the spread of what so far has been an extremely contagious virus. Beyond evaluation, telehealth can provide care that is commensurate with the acuity and nature of the symptoms and help you make referrals as needed. This helps with infection prevention and control. Telehealth also can be used to reassure residents who are found not to have the virus. All without residents having to leave the community, where they could be exposed to further illness.

Another factor to keep in mind is the potential for telehealth to help in providing routine care for other conditions and to offset coronavirus fears in your resident population. Residents have other healthcare needs unrelated to coronavirus, but many are afraid to go to a healthcare setting because they fear catching the disease. 

Many varieties of telehealth exist. It can be used to connect a physician or other provider with a resident or patient in the community or can be used for provider (specialist)-to-provider consultations in remote areas. It can be available via smartphone or tablet, and telehealth carts also exist in healthcare settings and can be used not only to import care but also to limit healthcare operators’ exposure to the virus when used in an isolation room.

Although video interactions are the most common, even informed telephone calls, synchronous chatting for therapy and asynchronous secure messaging for ongoing communications are possibilities.

Now that there is real-world evidence to support the use of telehealth, how can this work in your organization? Telehealth can work in all sizes and types senior living and care segments to generate census and move-ins, keep costs down, maintain resident loyalty and provide the type of service that residents increasingly prefer.

Here are some best practices to enable you to make your telehealth program successful and avoid some common mistakes.

Have clear goals

Sit down and think about the goals you have for your telehealth program right at the outset. Define clear goals with objective measurements. Consider how you want your telehealth program to affect census / move-ins, resident satisfaction, staff efficiency, resident retention, prospective and new residents, and any other measurements that are important for your organization.

Is your goal to imbed telehealth within the processes you already have in place or do you see telehealth as a simple offering?

Foster employee buy-in

Telehealth will have an effect on several functions within your organization, so it is a good idea to get several people involved in the rollout of your program. If staff members are engaged early and have the opportunity to help shape the program, then they will feel more invested in its success and take ownership.

Consider assembling a task force that includes staff members who will be using telehealth, available technical resources and a team from other business functions that might be able to assist. Gathering feedback and suggestions during the early stages of decision-making can help minimize issues and stumbling blocks later.

Become an expert on requirements in your state

State laws and payer policies about telehealth reimbursement vary widely, and as of today, they are a moving target. And over the past several days, we have seen CMS make considerable and impactful changes that can directly benefit senior care segments. Understanding how you can use telehealth and how you can be reimbursed will help shape your organization’s goals and successes.

Find the right vendor / partner

A variety of telehealth technologies are available. Any solution you consider at the minimum should:

  • Be easy for residents and staff members to use.
  • Create benefits of time savings and not additional staff time to use.
  • Be secure and HIPAA-compliant.
  • Integrate with your electronic medical record or electronic health record. Integration needs to be seamless with your current systems. 
  • Have the ability to grow and adapt to the changes in resident care in the future. The worst technology is the technology that cannot be upgraded to the latest changes in the healthcare markets. Pick a vendor / partner that has a history of being able to change its product offerings to meet the ever-changing needs of the senior living and care markets.

Promote to residents and overall market

Make sure that your residents know that video visits are an option for them. Consider posting signs in the office, sending an email or mentioning it during every in-person encounter. Even if residents don’t immediately embrace the approach, knowing that it is an option may help keep them loyal in the face of increasing competition.

Telehealth has been mentioned a great deal in the national news over the past month or so, and prospective residents and families are going to want to know whether your organization has embraced and used it. If you have, then consider promoting it to future residents in marketing materials.

Ask for feedback

Whenever you introduce something new to your staff and residents, it is essential to gather their feedback. Think about the best way for you to get the insight of both groups and integrate their best ideas into your program. This will breed ownership and ownership breeds compliance.

Measure success against your goals — and update

Once you have incorporated telehealth, remember to check in with your goals from time to time. You may need to tweak your program or your goals after you get started. It also is essential to recognize and reward your team when goals are met or exceeded.

Telehealth has the potential to change your organization for the better in several ways, so it is smart to introduce it with much thought. It can shape your organization, strengthen your referral sources and provide more exceptional resident care for years to come. Understanding and preparing your organization for the process of implementing any new telehealth program can be the difference between success and failure.