Health and behavioral health providers made a rapid pivot in how they provide services at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Within a matter of weeks, providers transitioned to providing care virtually. While there are of course challenges, there are also remarkable stories of ingenuity and innovation emerging.
From creating mobile hotspots on traveling school buses to using WiFi resources in the community at Walmarts and fast food restaurants, providers have found ways to make nascent telehealth programs work both for their staff and for their clients.
But given the lingering uncertainty, both in terms of the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic and the policy environment, providers can benefit from successful examples from their peers, as well as a how-to-guide for sustainability planning.
Through a series of virtual listening events and surveys, Georgia Health Policy Center researchers uncovered a variety of ways providers adapted their practices with innovative solutions and also listened to ongoing concerns, particularly around planning for an uncertain future.
Adaptations, Innovations, and Resilience
Without a doubt, certain policy changes, including increased flexibility around Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and reimbursement requirements, enabled providers to overcome years of hesitancy around telehealth investment and enabled rapid adoption of new technology.
Despite the initial challenges, providers report benefits from telehealth adoption, which enabled them to rapidly accommodate patients’ needs.
The brief Telehealth and COVID-19: Provider Innovations and the Need to Think Sustainably identifies emerging themes around challenges, adaptations and innovations, and sustainability in the areas of
- Infrastructure and technology
- Staff capacity and organizational processes
- Provider engagement in telehealth
Moving Toward Telehealth Sustainability
Decisions about how to move a telehealth program from initial “response mode” into a longer-term sustainable strategy has implications for the patients and clients served, as well as for providers and staff. The process of creating a sustainability plan clarifies the importance of the telehealth program for the provider organization and for the patients served. It also allows providers, leadership, and other stakeholders to make informed decisions about the future of the program.
With the unprecedented rapid uptake of telehealth by both providers and patients, as well as lingering uncertainty around the length of the pandemic and whether the policy changes will be sustained post-pandemic, provider entities need to plan for how to continue telehealth services under multiple potential scenarios (e.g., if hospitals, clinics, and schools can resume in-person services fully, partially, or not at all in the near and distant future).
GHPC’s new Sustainability How-To Guide for Providers of Telehealth provides tactical questions to consider for thinking through how to sustain telehealth services through
- Assessing continuing need
- Evaluating program outcomes
- Assessing the policy context and planning for multiple scenarios
- Identifying dedicated resources (including financial, human, and other) to support the program
By thinking sustainably, even during a pandemic, providers can build telehealth services that can be sustained and that can thrive in a rapidly evolving environment.