Telehealth has exploded in recent years. This trend was initially driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, which changed the way we do everything—from holding meetings with coworkers to picking up dinner from our favorite restaurants.
In the early months of 2020, telehealth experienced its most dynamic peak, skyrocketing from less than 1% of all visits up to 80% of visits. The vision industry saw a particularly significant increase in telehealth adoption during this tumultuous time. According to research from the Review of Optometric Business, nearly three-quarters of all optometrists provided their first ever telehealth visits during 2020.
As a result, vision clinics and patients alike had to figure out effective ways to handle remote appointments. Today, the vast majority of patients plan to continue using telehealth in our post-pandemic world. Because of this demand, vision clinics are continuing to invest in the telehealth experience, from technology solutions and insurance reimbursements to processes and workflows.
In this article, we’ll look more closely at the mechanics of telehealth and offer strategies for continued success.
How does telehealth differ from telemedicine?
While the words “telehealth” and “telemedicine” often are used interchangeably, there are some differences worth noting.
Telemedicine is the more specific term, referring to remote clinical services like diagnosis and treatment of patients using advanced telecommunications technology and diagnostic tools. It can be conducted synchronously (via a live session) or asynchronously (with information submitted through a portal to be reviewed at a later time).
Telehealth covers a broader scope of remote healthcare that can include clinical and non-clinical services. Examples are long-distance clinical healthcare and services, patient and professional health-related education, public health, and health administration.
In optometry and eye care specifically, telehealth includes hosting online appointments, providing online access to prescriptions, and enabling patients to text or email providers questions about their care.
How telehealth is conducted
Non-clinical telehealth often is done through portals or apps. For example, a patient can view their prescription information and then schedule an appointment to see an eye care professional (ECP). While these platforms have built-in security to protect the data being transmitted, they are designed primarily for patient convenience.
In cases where clinical telehealth or telemedicine is performed, a more robust technology platform is required to collect and transmit sensitive patient data. Most platforms must also be integrated with diagnostic equipment and electronic medical records (EMR).
In addition, clinics must train technicians, assistants, and licensed optometrists or ophthalmologists to perform elements of the examination. This includes training new workflows to uphold examination protocols.
For synchronous appointments, the patient and provider can see and/or hear each other in real time. The benefit of this arrangement is that, as in face-to-face visits, practitioners may be able to provide immediate advice to patients who require medical attention.
With asynchronous “store-and-forward” services, the medical practitioner and patient don’t meet in person. Instead, the patient sends information (like medical images or biosignals) to be reviewed by the receiving practitioner after the fact.
A telemedicine network combines data collection and transmission software with professional and technical services and staff to clinics. The network may or may not include the installation of specific brands or models of diagnostic equipment.
In a telemedicine network, properly licensed optometrists or ophthalmologists who are contracted with the network vendor will perform or supervise elements of remote examinations. These providers may be assisted by trained and supervised assistants or technicians (where permitted by state law). Additionally, the vendor may integrate diagnostic equipment with HIPAA-compliant telemedicine software and EMR. Typically, the vendor establishes the workflow to complete the examination protocol.
Determining your overall telehealth strategy
To build a successful strategy that benefits your clinic and makes life easier for your patients, you’ll need to determine the scope of your offering. Start by identifying what you are trying to solve. For example, in addition to improved convenience for your patients and team, you might be using telehealth to improve ECP utilization, address staffing gaps at certain locations, fuel geographic expansion, expand hours of operation, or increase eCommerce purchases.
Once you know your objectives, you’ll be able to build a strategy that meets your immediate needs and enables scalability in the future.
Popular options include:
- Online appointments
- Online check-ins
- Online access to prescriptions
- Prescription verification support
- Consultations with ECPs and staff
- Comprehensive eye health exams (telemedicine)
- Online visual acuity tests
- Online refraction exams
- At-home doctor-assisted refraction exams
Regulatory requirements and limitations
It’s also crucial to understand the relevant laws. In the United States, some states don’t allow all forms of telehealth for glasses, contact lenses, or both. A standard requirement is that doctors need to be licensed in the state the patient presents (not where the patient is from).
Ophthalmologists often have a more streamlined experience with telemedicine because they can easily become licensed across 30 states through the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact. Optometry doesn’t have a similar interstate agreement, though some optometrists are willing to fulfill the requirements to become licensed in multiple states.
Facilitating your telehealth strategy
With your strategy laid out, you’ll need to choose a HIPAA-compliant telehealth platform or network. Some optical retailers and other groups choose to build their own telehealth platform that works with their existing equipment and doctor network.
However, most groups select third-party telehealth platforms that also offer network services. To streamline your operations and reduce the number of vendors you partner with, it’s important to find a platform that offers an end-to-end set of solutions.
Luna’s end-to-end solution portfolio improves the eyewear shopping and prescription experience with retail, clinical, and fulfillment services. We deliver a smooth and rewarding patient journey that encompasses the telehealth and retail aspects of vision care, thanks to convenient options in our myRx suite, including Acuity Check, Lens Scanner, PD Reader, Renewal Exam, and our CE-Certified Refraction Exam.
Putting your plans into action
Telehealth is here to stay, so it’s essential you take time to develop the best strategies for your business. After identifying the challenges you want to solve with telehealth, you’ll be able to determine the scope of your offerings.
You will understandably have strong feelings regarding what telehealth should do for your business but at the end of the day it’s important to keep the patient experience front and center. Whatever you can do to make things easier, more predictable, and more enjoyable for your patients will pay dividends down the road.
To this end, don’t hesitate to seek your patients’ perspectives in the strategic development stage. While you can talk to them directly during various interactions to begin gathering input, sending out a brief survey is often the most impactful way to gather opinions. Use this survey to ask them about their biggest pain points and what upgrades would be most helpful to them.
Your patients will appreciate these sincere efforts to seek their opinion and make their lives better. And when you’re letting your patients help to guide your strategic decisions, you’ll always see a positive impact on your bottom line
Elevate your telehealth strategy with Luna by your side. Contact us to learn more about our end-to-end portfolio of retail, clinical, and fulfillment solutions.