Within hospital medicine, there has been a recent increase in programs that provide virtual or telehealth hospitalists, primarily to hospitals that are small, remote, and/or understaffed. According to a 2013 Cisco health care customer experience report, the number of telehealth consumers will likely markedly increase to at least 7 million by 2018.1
Since telehospitalist programs are still relatively new, there are many questions about why and how they exist and how they are (and can be) funded. Questions also remain about some limitations of telehospitalist programs for both the “givers” and the “receivers” of the services. I tackle some of these questions in this article.
What is a telehospitalist?
A telehospitalist is a hospitalist who provides remote services to patients and providers in need of such services. These services can range from initial encounters, follow-up encounters, post-acute care visits, home visits, consultations, and emergency care.
What are the drivers of telehospitalist programs?
One primary driver of telehealth (and specifically telehospitalist) programs is an ongoing shortage of hospitalists, especially in remote areas and critical access hospitals where coverage issues are especially prominent at night and/or on weekends. In many hospitals, there is also a growing unwillingness on the part of physicians to be routinely on call at night. Although working on call used to be on par with being a physician, many younger-generation physicians are less willing to blur “work and life.” This increases the need for dedicated night coverage in many hospitals.
Another driver for some programs (especially at tertiary care medical centers) is a desire to more thoroughly assess patients prior to transfer to their respective centers (the alternative being a phone conversation with the transferring center about the patient’s status). There is also a growing desire to keep patients local if possible, which is usually better for the patient and the family and can decrease the total cost of their care.
Another catalyst to telehospitalist program growth is the growing cultural comfort level with two-way video interactions, such as Skype and FaceTime. Since videoconferencing has permeated most of our professional and personal lives, telehealth seems familiar and comfortable for both providers and patients. In a recent consumer survey, three out of every four consumers responded that they are very comfortable communicating with providers via technology, as opposed to seeing them in person.1
Another driver for some programs is financial. Depending on the way the program is structured, it can be not only financially feasible but financially beneficial, especially if the program can consolidate coverage across multiple sites (more on this later).
One other driver for some health care systems is the need to cover areas with on-site nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Using a telehospitalist makes it easier to get appropriate and required oversight for this coverage model across time and space.
What are the advantages of being a telehospitalist?
Some of the career advantages of being a telehospitalist include the shift flexibility and convenience. This work allows a hospitalist to serve a shift from anywhere in the world and from the convenience of their home. Some telehospitalists can easily work local night shifts when they live many time zones away (and therefore, don’t actually have to work a night shift). Many programs are designed to have a single hospitalist cover many hospitals over a wide geography, which would be logistically impossible to do in person. This is especially appealing for multihospital systems that cannot afford to have a hospitalist on site at each location.
The earning potential can also be appealing, depending on the number of shifts a hospitalist is willing to work.
What are the limitations of being a telehospitalist?
There are limits to what a telehospitalist can perform, many of which depend on the manner in which the program and the technology are arranged. Telehealth can vary from a cart-based videoconferencing system that is transported into a patient’s room to an independent robot that travels throughout sites. The primary limitation is the need to rely on someone in the patient’s room to act as virtual hands. This usually falls to the bedside nurse and requires a good working relationship and patience on their part. The bedside nurses have to “buy into” the program in advance and may need to have scripting for how to explain the process to the patients.
Another major challenge is interacting with different electronic health record systems. Becoming agile with a single EHR is challenging enough, but maneuvering several of them in a single shift can be extremely trying. Telehospitalists can also be challenged by technology glitches or failures that need troubleshooting both on their end and on-site. Although these problems are rare, there will always be a concern that the patient will not get his or her needs met if the technology fails.