By Joanne Kaldy

Remember those first few minutes in the movie Jaws? You knew the shark was out there, but you didn’t know what havoc it would wreak. But it was pretty clear early on that sales for shark repellant in that resort town were about to go through the roof. This is kind of like what happened with telehealth and the pandemic.

Case in Point

At the National Investment Center for Senior Housing & Care (NIC) Spring conference in early March, a session on telehealth was sparsely attended. There just wasn’t much interest. Then the pandemic hit, and all that changed in a New York minute.

During a recent episode of Foresight TV, Bob Kramer, founder and strategic adviser to NIC, and founder of Nexus Insights, recalled how the barriers to telehealth use came “tumbling down.”

On the same program, Kelsey Mellard, CEO of Sitka, observed that telehealth’s sudden rise was significant and inevitable, but not necessarily easy. She said, “One thing we’ve encountered is that many senior care communities don’t have adequate infrastructure in place.” Digital updates, such as more reliable Wi-Fi and better bandwidth, weren’t priorities before the pandemic. The scramble to update, now that these capabilities are “as essential as plumbing,” has taken on new urgency.

The Recipe for Success

This scrambling may have broken some eggs, but it’s also fed a banquet of successes. Bob said, “COVID brought senior housing and care into the 21st-century world of digital communication. We now are seeing things happening that didn’t seem possible eight months ago. That’s huge.”

Another powerful change has been how senior living residents and family members view telehealth. Kelsey cited a 2019 poll showing that only 4% of people over the age of 50 had tried a telehealth visit. Fast forward to today, where 1 in 4 older Americans has had a virtual medical visit due to the pandemic. She said, “It often takes these dramatic shifts, literally done overnight.”

She added, “To that extent, I’ve heard from many medical directors at senior communities that have been on our road map for four years, ‘We need it tomorrow.’” These and other senior care leaders realize that telehealth is no longer an option, said Kelsey. “It’s an essential ingredient to operate a safe environment for residents and practitioners alike.”

Finally

Medical directors and other senior care leaders aren’t the only ones who are embracing telehealth. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is extending a relaxation of many rules related to this technology, enabling it to be used—and reimbursed—more broadly.

“In many ways, I see this as the perfect convergence for senior communities to include offering telehealth services,” said Kelsey. This is a key way to bring more services in for residents rather than sending them out to the ER, hospital, clinic, or physician’s office. “The whole paradigm has drastically shifted,” she suggested.

What Are We Talking About?

Before jumping headfirst into telehealth, it’s important to understand what you’re talking about and make sure what you get aligns with what you need. Telehealth, said Kelsey, is a broad term. Most basically, it can be asynchronous (connecting a provider and patient or a provider with another provider) or synchronous (sharing information/messaging—texting—back and forth). Knowing what features you will need and how you will use them is essential.

While telehealth is an undeniable necessity for the pandemic and post-COVID worlds, Bob cautioned, “You can’t just dump telehealth capabilities into a building and, ‘presto,’ you can provide all this great healthcare whatever the acuity level of your residents.”

However, Kelsey said, “When the resident can be safely maintained in their community and have the primary care provider overlooking the situation but also have access to a specialty provider, you create an actual care team.”

Don’t forget the family, Kelsey stressed. “Family inclusion is key.” The question is how you include the family in these intense care settings. Will you do it through texting or can they join a video visit? These opportunities not only give them great insight into what is happening with their loved one; they also can ease the resident’s fears and anxieties.

Meat for Your Marketing

While marketing certainly isn’t the reason to implement telehealth, these services can be used to promote communities to prospective residents and families. At the same time, they can help attract and retain good employees. Kelsey suggested that frontline staff appreciate what we do to keep them safe, motivated, and upskilled. And they understand that telehealth helps limit the number of people going in and out of buildings, which keeps everyone safer. 

The key, Kelsey said, is implementing telehealth capabilities that “empower staff with the information they need without creating additional burdens or making the process a hassle. You have to integrate it into the workflow.”

This I Know

Likely, no one had a global pandemic on their 2020 Bingo card, but some did see a growing role for telehealth. Perhaps the one good thing COVID brought forth was to take this bit player in health care and make it a star. As best practices and experiences emerge, we’ll get a better sense of what tomorrow’s telehealth will look like. 

Click here to watch this or other Foresight TV episodes.