By Nicole Limpert
Those in the healthcare communication field already know the value of telehealth and virtual care. As the COVID-19 pandemic evolved, telemedicine gained worldwide recognition as a critical healthcare tool to keep both patients and medical staff safe.
Telehealth has been used to bring healthcare to rural areas or isolated populations, such as overseas military personnel and those who work in the maritime industry. Until recently, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) placed certain stipulations on telehealth providers and would only reimburse for services provided in rural areas with specific audio-visual equipment.
However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on March 6, 2020, CMS relaxed restrictions and removed many of the conditions to which clinicians had to adhere in order to supply telehealth services to patients across the entire United States. Later, CMS expanded its telehealth adoption to include eighty-five new telehealth services to their covered list and set provider reimbursement rates for telehealth visits to be the same as in-person services.
Are We Ready for Telemedicine?
Many people are new to the concept of telemedicine. On July 31, 2019, J.D. Power reported that nearly three-quarters of Americans weren’t aware of telehealth options or didn’t have access to technology to partake in telehealth. Yet the American Hospital Association states that 76 percent of U.S. hospitals were already using telehealth before the coronavirus pandemic. Currently, forty-eight states require telehealth coverage in insurance plans.
Healthcare-related industries already had infrastructure in place and were prepared for the use of telemedicine and telehealth. However, few, if any, expected how quickly the use of these virtual tools would grow or how they would be used in new ways when COVID-19 began to spread.
The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically accelerated the adoption of telemedicine usage. Telehealth visits skyrocketed by 50 percent in March 2020 according to data from Frost and Sullivan. Analysts at Forrester Research estimates that virtual healthcare interactions will reach more than 1 billion by the end of 2020.
Hospital Call Centers Experience Increased Telehealth Calls
The pandemic has affected call centers in every industry. Most business websites have placed a message at the top of their home page warning of long hold times and delays in service. In healthcare, communication setbacks can mean life or death. Understandably, hospital call centers experienced a substantial increase in calls early in the pandemic. Many healthcare call centers help with telehealth efforts, and they also serve as a hub for their healthcare organization during a crisis.
“We played an immediate role in the hospital’s corporate response to the coronavirus pandemic,” explains Shelley White, MS, CHAM, FACHE, director of patient access services for State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University. “A COVID-19 hotline was established, and we took calls from multiple counties in our area. Within two weeks, our call volume drastically increased, and we needed more space in our call centers to work while practicing social distancing. We used free operator licenses from our vendor to set up more remote operator workstations so more of our agents could work from home. This kept our staff safe while serving the community.”
Running a call center in a virtual server environment, or in the cloud, is giving hospitals the ability to stay flexible and available by using remote operators. These tools are scalable and result in fully functioning call handling to transform any personal computer into a professional telephone agent station.
Call Center Software Assists Telehealth Communication
Using telehealth for virtual appointments with medical staff and patients has been essential during this pandemic. But there are other ways healthcare systems use telehealth communications. Hospital call centers tap their communication software, often in new ways, to provide their communities and staff with correct information, quick responses, and in some cases, hope.
Nurse Triage Centers: Agents use a customized script to triage calls.
Improved Navigation Menus: Callers are directed to additional, updated information.
Nonclinical Services: Telehealth also refers to remote, nonclinical administrative uses such as establishing and maintaining on-call shifts for COVID-19 volunteer pools and even creating announcements using a song, tone, or message to broadcast throughout the hospital when a coronavirus patient is released. It’s a wonderful way to spread hope and encouragement to patients and staff.
Many telehealth agents are working from home, and it is crucial for them to have access to the IT support they would normally use when working in the call center. Jennie McWhorter, information services operations manager for Ephraim McDowell Health in Danville, Kentucky, explains how the system can help here as well. “We have entered a telehealth support hotline in the call center software that allows the operators to connect to our help desk directly,” says Jennie. “This is very important, as our main help desk line is usually a voicemail-only system that creates a ticket in our help desk software.”
Remote Operators Help Medical Staff
Shelley White’s team has also been able to aid staff who still work in the hospital. SUNY Upstate Medical University is the only ACS-certified Level I Trauma Center in the region and serves about 1.7 million people and twenty-eight referral hospitals. Shelley says, “During this coronavirus crisis, our ER registration is short-staffed, but we are able to help by watching our track board, which is tied into the EMR system with Epic. When a COVID-19 patient is admitted, we can call the patient to register them and verify insurance information over the phone. This process would normally be done in person by ER staff, but we can do it remotely and ease some of their workload.”
According to numbers reported from Becker’s Hospital Review on April 7, 2020, employees from 243 hospitals have been furloughed during the pandemic. Hospitals are taking steps to save supplies, suspend elective procedures, and focus on treating COVID-19 patients.
To avoid layoffs, some healthcare organizations are reassigning their medical staff as remote call center operators. “We were able to redistribute existing staff from other departments and tap into their skills to cross-train them to work for the switchboard,” states Shelley. “In our situation, patient access staff and medical answer teams were trained on easy calls and were then able to work from home as remote operators. These staff members are now even more valuable to our organization.”
Kathleen Kerrigan, BSN, RN, and manager of medical communications center, radiology contact center, and pager services for Nebraska Medicine, mentions her experience. “Nebraska Medicine has created a Flex Pool for employees that work in areas of the organization that have closed or severely cut their workflows due to COVID-19. I was able to add nineteen of these employees to my team, including both nurses and agents.”
Telehealth as the New Normal
Telehealth has suddenly become crucial for patients and healthcare organizations. The use of telehealth has undeniably shown what a critical tool it is in supporting a healthy population.
Hospital call center and healthcare professionals have already shown agility in adapting communications software in new ways to improve telemedicine applications while enhancing patient care, even during a pandemic. Advances in technology and our ability to use it could soon make the use of telehealth a standard healthcare practice.
Nicole Limpert is the marketing content writer for Amtelco and their 1Call Healthcare Division. Amtelco is a leading provider of innovative communication applications. 1Call develops software solutions and applications designed for the specific needs of healthcare organizations.