Eric Bacon
Eric Bacon

The ongoing pandemic has underscored the role of telehealth as a means for delivering care and a mechanism for controlling healthcare costs and reducing hospital readmissions. Even as the pandemic gradually subsides, healthcare organizations in general — and post-acute care facilities and skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) in particular — must continue to look for ways to optimize their telehealth offerings to preserve margins and improve patient outcomes.

While telehealth utilization has stabilized after a dramatic surge in 2020, it remains roughly 38 times higher than pre-pandemic levels. Moreover, many of the regulatory changes that helped drive that increase are now permanent, as the United States Department of Health and Human Services aims to foster ongoing innovation in the space. 

And because the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has identified SNFs as a COVID-origination site, it has presented even more incentives for these facilities to implement virtual care services. SNFs can now bill Medicare about $20 for each medical visit conducted remotely within a facility.

But not all post-acute care facilities and SNFs are equipped to seize the opportunities ahead.

Bringing care home

COVID-19 isn’t the only emergency facing the healthcare industry. The growing prevalence of chronic diseases, reflective of America’s aging population, is a healthcare and economic crisis that will test the sector for decades to come.

As the increase in people over age 55 continues to outpace the growth rate of America’s younger population, the predominant care setting is increasingly pivoting toward the home. Remote patient monitoring reimbursement models for in-home patients will inevitably hurt SNFs, which already face reduced census totals.

So how can leaders of SNFs and post-acute care facilities attempt to tackle these daunting challenges? Start with these three steps:

1. Focus on training and support.

Many healthcare organizations facing tremendous pressure to evolve simply push technology onto their staff with little to no training and wonder why adoption is nonexistent. In contrast, the facilities and physician groups that achieve the most success with telehealth embrace training and ongoing facility assessments.

Facilities can instill confidence in their employees by conducting site network assessments before deploying technology, providing training at each shift change, and then delivering continuous support with a learning management system. When attendants are confident using new technology, they’re less apprehensive about continuing to use it. This creates a virtuous cycle that ultimately results in increased utilization across the facility and, in turn, better patient care and greater revenue.

2. Reduce hospital readmission to create competitive advantages.

Telehealth has the most significant financial impact on SNFs and post-acute care facilities when physicians use it to provide virtual bedside clinical management to avoid hospitalizations. Medicare withholds 2% of each post-acute care facility’s gross annual budget for high readmission rates within 30 days of initial hospital discharge. Yet telehealth can address many of the resident cases that PCPs typically send to hospitals in minutes.

Implementing effective telemedicine and remote care solutions enables facilities to adhere to the SNF value-based purchasing program by treating residents in place while drastically reducing readmission rates. Furthermore, low readmission rates create a competitive advantage as health systems are encouraged to discharge patients to these facilities, thereby increasing census.

3. Integrate telehealth with medical devices, so fewer patients require outside treatment.

Remote patient health monitoring is undoubtedly one of the most promising areas in the field of virtual care. For SNFs and post-acute care facilities, building these capabilities should be a strategic imperative. The ability to monitor patient health data outside of traditional clinical settings allows facilities to treat patients proactively and, in some cases, obviate the expenses associated with sending them for outside treatment.

Investing now in a robust portfolio of medical devices that incorporate telehealth will bring dividends sooner rather than later. Stethoscopes, EKGs, ultrasounds, medical imaging devices and tools for capturing vitals are used daily in post-acute care facilities and SNFs. If physicians and nurses can immediately access and analyze the data generated by these tools in audio, video and other formats during live sessions, they can make more accurate diagnoses and design more proactive treatment plans, protecting revenue that would otherwise go to a specialist facility.

Telemedicine presents abundant opportunities for post-acute care facilities and SNFs to improve patient outcomes and protect revenue, but only when implemented strategically. The steps above can help organizations optimize telehealth for the best possible outcomes.

Eric Bacon is president at AMD Global Telemedicine, Inc. He has 20 years of experience designing new medical devices and telemedicine solutions that are deployed in more than 100 countries and used in millions of consults. During his time at AMD, Eric and his team have transformed and expanded the company from a provider of medical devices to a software development and technology company focused on effectuating change and impact across the healthcare industry. AMD currently has solutions in more than 500 post-acute care facilities.

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.