How to get the most out of telehealth in aged care

Virtual tools provide a solution to improving access to care but a focus on their practical implementation in aged care homes is required, writes Silvia Pfeiffer.

Virtual tools provide a solution to improving residents’ access to care but there needs to be a focus on the practical implementation of these tools in aged care homes, writes Silvia Pfeiffer.

The accelerated adoption of telehealth due to Covid has been particularly impactful in residential aged care, where it is recognised as an important tool to improve the quality of care and outcomes of residents. The demand for technology like this will only increase as the sector faces staff shortages and limited resources that impact resident care.

Silvia Pfeiffer

Virtual care improves the frequency and access to care for residents and reduces the need for travel – which can benefit both residents and practitioners. With increases in demand for appointments, removing travel time allows doctors and specialists to see more patients and residents to receive care in a familiar environment.

While these benefits are clear for clinicians and patients, what is not clearly understood are the new challenges for the aged care homes looking to implement virtual care. It’s not enough to simply enable clinicians with telehealth capability, as this approach only works when a patient can independently attend appointments.

Many aged care residents require a carer or family member to help them organise appointments or use a digital device. So while telehealth presents an opportunity to improve overall care, its implementation requires careful consideration. Simply expecting overworked staff to pick up on new workflows is unrealistic. 

What is required to make telehealth work in aged care homes? Successful telehealth implementation needs both a human and technical response.

Logistical solutions for supporting aged care staff

An aged care resident who follows health recommendations and sees doctors and specialists regularly will be happier, healthier and require less intensive care. Yet, ensuring residents regularly see medical and allied health professionals is challenging.

Virtual care can provide greater access but we must embrace the changes this requires. It has the potential to create more efficiently run care homes – instead of organising logistics around transporting residents to hospitals and providers, logistics centre around implementing telehealth workflows in aged care facilities.

Understanding the challenges staff already face, facilities need dedicated efforts to connect residents with the services they need. The role of a telehealth coordinator is to organise appointments, set the technology up for the resident, make sure residents attend appointments and follow up on any subsequent tasks.

All of these tasks are necessary, and none require a qualified healthcare professional – freeing up nurses’ time to focus on the health of residents.

Ultimately, it would be best if Medicare funded patient-end support services for telehealth, but for now, funding might be available through Primary Health Networks (PHNs) as their role is to assess the needs of their communities and strengthen the primary healthcare system. Coordinators could be funded based on the number of residents in each facility, and PHNs remain as mediators for getting sufficient practitioners on board for delivery of the service.

Creating an integrated tech solution

The use of telehealth needs to allow for individual consultations, care team consultation and group therapy with several aged care residents participating. This requires various staff, small portable devices for individual consultations, large monitors or screens for group therapy, and the coordination of residents and practitioner time.

Organising consultations using internal and external booking systems often end up requiring staff to double handle appointments across various systems. An integrated booking system with access to both provider and aged care home schedules can streamline the process.

Beyond the coordination challenges, there is the requirement for record keeping. While practitioners will keep their own records, the care home is required to keep its own records. Software that supports telehealth delivery that can integrate into the aged care home’s clinical software and the clinician EMR has a huge potential for efficiency and further streamlining processes. This also extends to medication reviews and care planning.

A fully integrated telehealth solution can give aged care homes access to a panel of telehealth-enabled providers, booking systems and adequate record keeping post-virtual consultations to alleviate administrative burdens.

Having a digitally enabled aged care industry will be critical for Australia’s future healthcare sector, and, in order to achieve this, we need to address the challenges of implementation to create an integrated solution supported by dedicated human resources and integrated software systems.

Silvia Pfeiffer is chief executive officer and co-founder of Coviu

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