Outpatient Practice

Optimizing Telemedicine Into Outpatient Clinical Practice

The medical field has been dabbling in telemedicine for decades but until now was held back largely by reimbursement. Quite simply, Medicare and insurance would not pay for it except in a few very specific situations. But COVID-19 has opened the door for broad adoption of telemedicine into regular outpatient practice. When COVID-19 first emerged in the United States, Medicare allowed physicians to see patients via telemedicine and get paid the same as they would have if they had seen patients in a regular physician office. Although the future of telemedicine is subject to the vagaries of Medicare decision-making, my suspicion is that it is now here to stay – Americans have tried it and they like it.

Being old-school, I believe in the value of a well-performed physical examination and so telemedicine is not going to replace all office visits. For some specialties, for example wound care, telemedicine may only be able to be used in a minority of visits. However, not every office visit requires a physical examination – in my practice, I believe that I can do about one-half to two-thirds of my office visits by telemedicine and deliver the same quality of medical care. But with a mixture of in-person and telemedicine visits, how does a physician most efficiently design their schedule templates? As I am setting up my own templates, I’ve found that there are several factors to consider.

Patients like telemedicine

With telemedicine, patients no longer have to take several hours off of work to travel to and from the doctor’s office. For patients like many of mine who are on home oxygen, they don’t have to worry about their oxygen tank running out during the trip to  the doctor’s office. Patients who live a hour or two away from the doctor can now see their doctor without having to travel to the city that their doctor practices in. And patients don’t have to endure the aggravation of waiting in a crowded waiting area for the doctor who is running behind schedule. With COVID-19, patients don’t have to fear going out of their homes to a place where they could become infected by someone with the virus.

Telemedicine-only schedules

Most physicians think in terms of half-day templates. In my own practice, I take care of administrative and teaching responsibilities in the mornings and then see outpatients in the afternoons. By making an afternoon telemedicine-only, a physician can greatly reduce overhead cost. You don’t have to pay for rent for examination space and the office staff can do patient registration, medication list confirmation, etc. anytime that day or even the day before so that their time can be utilized more efficiently. The physician does not even have to be physically in the office – he or she can be in the hospital or even at home. This frees up the office space for another physician to use it for in-person visits.

Another advantage of telemedicine-only schedules is that by giving the patient a time range that the physician will contact them for the telemedicine visit (for example, between 1:00 – 2:00 PM), the patient does not need to sit in the exam room waiting for the doctor, they can be in the comfort of their own home or workplace. This way, if the physician is running a few minutes late because the previous patient took longer than anticipated, patients are less likely to become angry from long waiting times.

The disadvantage of telemedicine-only schedules is that the physician has to have enough days that they see outpatients so that some days can be devoted to in-person visits since there are inevitably some patients who must be seen face-to-face. So, if a physician has a very small outpatient practice, this approach is not practical.

Combining telemedicine and in-person schedules

In this strategy, the physician intersperses in-person visits with telemedicine visits. An advantage of this strategy is that the physician needs fewer examination rooms – a doctor who normally uses 4 exam rooms to optimize outpatient practice efficiency may only need 2 or 3 exam rooms. This can cut down on overhead costs. If the doctor gets behind on the schedule, then the doctor can postpone a telemedicine visit by 20 minutes and see the patient already in an examination room – by and large, patients waiting in their own home will be less irritated if the doctor is 20 minutes late for the telemedicine visit than the patients waiting in an exam room or waiting room. Additionally, telemedicine visits generally take a few minutes less than an in-person visit (no physical exam) so alternating telemedicine visits with in-person visits helps keep the doctor on-time for all of the patients.

In the COVID-19 era of social distancing, physician office waiting areas are not able to safely hold as many people as in the past. By mixing telemedicine and in-person visits, the number of people coming into the office is lower and this results in fewer people in the waiting area. Mixed visits on the schedule also give office staff extra time needed to sanitize exam rooms between patients.

The fate of in-person-only schedules

Until 3 months ago, this was the model used by most U.S. physicians. The result was crowded waiting rooms, irritated patients when the doctor was running behind, and the expense of no-show patients. This model is inefficient and costly. It places high demands on office staff and the physician to keep the schedule on time. In the future, this will probably not be a financially viable method of seeing patients.

So how should you structure your schedule templates?

There is no single best answer and template optimization depends on the medical/surgical specialty, the number of half-day blocks of office hours an individual physician has, and how COVID-19 is affecting the community at any given time. My recommendation would be to:

  1. First, create half-day blocks of mixed telemedicine + in-person office visits. Depending on the size of the waiting room, the number of exam rooms per physician, and the practice specialty, this could be 2:1 telemedicine:in-person or perhaps 1:1 telemedicine:in-person visits.
  2. Second, create half-day blocks of telemedicine-only visits. For many physician practices, this will be approximately 1/3 or 1/4 of the total half-day blocks.
  3. Have more than 1 telemedicine software application that your office uses and educate your patients on how to use the app. Many of the video chat programs currently being used for telemedicine require a specific web browser or a specific cell phone operating system. Also, many of these programs require the patient to update to the latest version of web browser software. In order to accommodate the largest number of patients, have 2 or 3 available options for telemedicine video conferencing in order to tailor each patient’s web browser or operating system.
  4. Know your patients’ technologic limitations. A surprisingly large number of patients do not have a computer or phone with a camera or live in an area where there is insufficient internet bandwidth or cell service to do video telemedicine visits. These patients will need to be scheduled for in-person visits.
  5. Be aware of state-specific rules regarding out-of-state telemedicine visits. Many states have eased regulations in the COVID-19 era but most normally have restrictions about medical licenses being valid only for telemedicine visits performed within that state and not for visits when the patient is in another state. These patients will need to be scheduled for in-person visits.
  6. Train the office staff on how to instruct patients to use the video chat telemedicine app. When we first started using telemedicine at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, I would frequently wait for 5-10 minutes for a patient to join the video visit and then I would have to call them on the phone to talk them through using the applications. Ideally, the office staff should do this before the physician video visit with a practice video visit so that the patient becomes familiar with how to use the program.

Telemedicine is (hopefully) here to stay and promises to improve the efficiency of outpatient practice, reduce no-show rates, and provide care to patients who otherwise would not be able to travel to see the doctor. Creating the right schedule template will allow the physician to function with maximal efficiency and generate maximal patient satisfaction.

June 23, 2020

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and former Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital