The Need for a Gold Standard in Telehealth Education

According to the Consumer Technology Association, recent data shows that 59% of consumers use remote mental health services, 49% are using telehealth for physical health, and 37% are using health fitness apps – all increases compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic.  We have seen how telehealth, as a channel for healthcare delivery, expanded dramatically earlier this year and settled in at about 15-25% of ambulatory care volume at most providers.  My ears perk up when I pass by the television or radio in my house and hear ads for health plans touting ‘access to telehealth visits’ as a selling point.

Those of us in the industry will think of 2020 as the year for telehealth’s debutante ball.  Now that we find ourselves nearly twelve months into a reasonably stable state of two-channel healthcare delivery (telehealth and in-person care), there has been a subtle shift in the news and amongst the pundits from talk of new gadgets, conversational AI, social robots, and other cutting-edge applications to conversations about scaling virtual visits.

I want to call your attention to two important examples of this trend.  The first is the American Board of Telehealth, recently launched by colleagues in the industry to “help professionals and paraprofessionals learn best practices for implementing and using telemedicine across the care continuum.” The initial vehicle for achieving this goal will be a certificate program, representing the gold standard in telehealth education at this critical time.  I am proud to note that the ATA, where I am Chair of the Board, has endorsed the program and formed a critical distribution partnership with ABT.

The very nature of healthcare demands that we take whatever steps necessary to ensure that our patients are safe, and the quality of their care is as high as possible.  At this time, when telehealth has become a household word, it is of vital importance that we offer clinicians education and certification that is rigorous, based upon the best available research, and steeped in the collective experiences of some of the best minds in telehealth.  We have achieved a massive scale of telehealth in a short time necessitating on-the-job training for our clinicians and administrators. A certificate program such as the one offered by ABT can fill in critical gaps in knowledge. The ATA’s role is also pivotal in that, as the industry association, the ATA has an opportunity to be a neutral third party in the dissemination of these programs.

The ABT deserves enormous credit for the foresight to create this program before the pandemic, so it is ready to improve our patients’ care when we need it most.

The second example is the recent release of competencies from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).  I was privileged to work on the committee (led by Scott Shipman, who is also on the ABT’s advisory board) that created these competencies. The work of their dissemination is just beginning.  As medical schools and residency programs incorporate telehealth into their training programs, these competencies serve as a guide to building consistent, rigorous programs.

It is an exciting time in telehealth. We’ve crossed the threshold from early adopter to early majority. We’ve gone from “toy to tool.”  This creates a need for more consistency and rigor in training, and both the ABT and AAMC are paving the way for this next exciting phase.