This is a question that many Americans have been asking themselves since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic; is it better to stay home and visit with a doctor via a telehealth appointment, or is it worth it to venture into the office for a face-to-face visit?
Born of necessity, the rapid expansion of the telehealth platform and its increasing popularity over the last 18 months have revolutionized the way that patients are receiving care. Telehealth appears to be one of the positive and lasting impacts of this mass-scale health crisis, widely adopted by providers as a commonplace treatment option. Though an in-person follow-up visit may eventually be required for some specialties, virtual visits have proven to provide the same level and quality of care as their in-person counterparts. The choice between an in-office or telehealth visit now, in most cases, falls to patient preference. With COVID-19 cases at the lowest reported since the initial surge, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of patients returning to their doctor’s offices. While many are gaining greater comfort and confidence, others enjoy the ease and convenience of a virtual visit regardless of the improved environment.
From a provider’s perspective, the pandemic has opened the doors for adequate, if not comparable, reimbursement for telehealth visits, with insurers now accepting and covering both visit types under most plans. The virtual visit option helped many practices maintain revenue and patient satisfaction during the lockdown and currently contributes to volumes that meet or even exceed pre-COVID levels. In terms of providing the care itself, virtual visits require fewer resources and shorter time blocks through the automation of the scheduling/check-in functions and the elimination of the need for patient rooming. Therefore, the cost per telehealth visit is typically lower, and more can be scheduled in a day, maximizing provider capacity and making the virtual platform ideal for routine patient appointments.
On the productivity side of the visit debate, both are equal contributors to overall practice performance and should be captured in any monitored volume metrics. However, given the differences in encounter type, they should be weighted accordingly. The required staff hours per telehealth appointment would be less than those necessary for an in-office visit. Using a standard primary care practice as an example, a strong productivity goal for face-to-face encounters would be 0.9 staff hours per visit (or 54 minutes per visit), while the target for the telehealth portion of the visit volume might be closer to 0.5 staff hours per visit (or 30 minutes per visit). When looking at blended performance, the productivity target would fall closer to 0.8 staff hours per total visit (or 48 minutes per visit) depending on the ratio of in-office to telehealth visits the practice experiences (in-person visit volumes tend to be higher in most cases). Approaching the analysis in this way ensures proper alignment between staffing and patient demand.
Should you stay or should you go? The decision is entirely yours – based on the current healthcare landscape, there is no threat of “trouble” with either choice.
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