As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, patient demand is high for telepsychiatry, but starting this kind of practice requires careful software selection, a strong support team, and on-point marketing.
Software vendors offer bundled solutions for EMRs, billing, and scheduling, but the simplest choice isn’t always the best one.
Psychiatrists can weigh convenience with compliance regulations and their business goals to choose software and support services that help them succeed.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many medical specialties to embrace telehealth. Psychiatry is no exception.
For psychiatrists who want to meet this growing demand, starting a telepsychiatry practice doesn’t have to be a tech nightmare.
You may just need the right software and support team, and a little bit of marketing.
Here are four key considerations to keep in mind when you want to start up your own telepsychiatry practice.
1. Software is key
A 2021 American Psychiatric Association (APA) survey indicated that as of January of that year, 81% of responding psychiatrists were seeing between 75% to 100% of their patients via streaming video and audio, likely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another 2021 APA survey determined that the majority of patients want this service. This poll found that six out of 10 patients would use telehealth to receive mental healthcare. So how do psychiatrists start a telepsychiatry practice?
Amanda Zeglis, DO, a practicing psychiatrist and member of the MDLinx advisory board, said that software is your friend. You’ll need an EMR, a billing solution, and a scheduling service.
Elana Miller, MD, a psychiatrist who has written about launching her telepsychiatry practice, has some suggestions for these services. She wrote that IntakeQ kills four birds with one stone, handling intake forms, scheduling, billing, and charting. Plus, the company integrates with billing solutions such as Square and Stripe, making payments easier for patients, who also have the option of saving a credit card and setting up automatic billing.
But, Dr. Zeglis cautioned that bundled services may not be best for your bottom line. Creating your own software combination for EMR, billing, and scheduling may net the biggest savings. For example, you might use Luminello for charting or e-prescribing, DrChrono for billing, and Acuity Scheduling (although all three sites offer multiple services).
“Oftentimes you can find platforms hosted by an umbrella company that can suit your needs with a greater amount of ease, though the trade-off may be that they don't provide the optimal compensation,” Dr. Zeglis said.
"At the end of the day, it’s helpful to first identify what your goals are as a business and as a provider, then pinpoint the best way to achieve those goals. "
— Amanda Zeglis, DO
Try before you buy. Schedule demos and grill sales reps before settling on a single platform or a combination of services. And if you’re thinking of combining services, be certain that they integrate well.
2. Ensure compliance
Regardless of the software you select, HIPAA compliance is mandatory. Not just any video streaming service will do, either, according to an APA article on platform and software requirements.
The APA cautioned that many free and commonly used products are not HIPAA-compliant.
If you read the fine print, you’ll see that the vendors require a business associate agreement for HIPAA compliance. If you have any doubts about HIPAA compliance, the APA recommended asking the vendor.
Creating your own concoction of billing, scheduling, and EHR services? The APA warned that things get tricky with HIPAA compliance if you take this approach, as one noncompliant system may render you noncompliant across the board.
You must verify the encryption standards of any third-party telepsychiatry vendors, according to the APA. Ask the vendor if their encryption is up to the FIPS 140-2 certified 256-bit standard. Also, make sure the vendor doesn’t store or intercept any video. Ensure that any stored videos or chat text are only available to you on your HIPAA-compliant device or EHR—not to the vendor.
One more consideration: Is your internet up to speed? The APA said that a 5 MB upload/download speed will ward off pixelation, buffering, and lost or garbled audio. Keep in mind that HD video settings will require more bandwidth.
3. Get the right support
Those technical requirements may make your head spin, but vendors should be able to answer your questions. And if they can’t, it’s a strong indicator that you should take your money elsewhere.
But what about the financial and legal challenges of running a telepsychiatry practice? Figuring those out independently could be time-consuming and costly. You don’t have to go it alone, Dr. Zeglis said, advising you to get a financial advisor and legal advisor.
"Even if you don’t wish to keep these advisors long-term, they can provide an incredible amount of information and guidance in consulting them at the beginning of your endeavors."
— Amanda Zeglis, DO
“It will pay dividends in the long run to ensure you have a stable financial and legal foundation,” she added.
4. Market yourself
You can also ask for support from your patients. Launching a new business venture is no small feat, and Dr. Zeglis said satisfied patients can be a valuable asset.
“Marketing is of utmost importance when attempting to establish your own client portfolio, and word-of-mouth is an excellent way to start,” she said.
If you know your patients are satisfied, ask them to recommend you to friends and family, if they feel comfortable doing so. Dr. Miller suggested giving your Psychology Today profile some TLC.
She recommended avoiding jargon. Instead of saying, “I’m a board-certified psychiatrist who can offer personalized evaluation and treatment of mood, anxiety, trauma-related, and thought disorders,” say, “I work with you to carefully create an individualized plan using the best of modern medicine plus holistic approaches ... so that you can feel better.”
Be specific, she said, and speak in terms that patients will understand.
Post a clear, professional headshot. You could even record a short introductory video.
Ultimately, you are the reason patients will choose your practice. Use marketing efforts such as Psychology Today, social media, and advertisements to explain who you are and why patients should work with you. Patients are buying your brand; make sure they know what they’re getting.
What this means for you
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased demand for telehealth psychiatry services. In setting your telepsychiatry practice up, remember that the most convenient software solution may not be best for your bottom line and business goals. Try before you buy; grill vendors about system interoperability and regulatory compliance. Vague or missing answers are signs to look elsewhere. Keep in mind that telepsychiatry is about more than just patients and technology. You may need legal and financial advice, as well as marketing support.
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