Contributed photography / Rachael Sauceman

Telehealth, which has been nibbling at the edges of the conventional in-person doctor visit for years, is having a heyday as the coronavirus keeps us at a safe distance. Since the pandemic began, 42% of adults report they have used telehealth services, according to a Harris Poll conducted for health care communications firm Updox. In 2020, the telehealth market is likely to experience year-over-year growth of 64.3%, reports Frost & Sullivan, a strategy consulting and research firm.

All of this means medical providers have to get telehealth savvy in a hurry, and that's where the digital experts come in. Rachael Sauceman, the head of strategic initiatives for Full Media, talked with Edge about how the firm is helping medical providers move their worlds online.

Q: Does Full Media specialize in this challenge, or is it one of many hats your team wears?

A: Full Media has not always been an exclusively health care-focused agency, but in the last three to four years, we have made that transition. We've become a subject matter expert in health care and built the strategy around that. We had served health care for a long time, and over time it has kind of morphed into something where we felt like in Full Media's mission and purpose as a company, there's a lot we can do to fulfill that mission in health care. Our mission is to impact the world positively.

Q: Do lessons learned from other types of clients benefit health care clients?

A: It is invaluable for health care to take into account what other industries are doing. Health care tends to be behind when it comes to adoption of digital, and telehealth is ultimately wrapped up in consumer choice. Consumers are used to everything else in their lives being an easy online experience that puts everything at their fingertips. Health care hasn't done that. A lot of times they are quite a few steps behind. But health care organizations also have specific concerns that other places don't. How do they create a positive experience for patients throughout their entire journey, how to be sensitive to a patient in ways that are different than if you're marketing another product. There is a really big shift in thinking about how you deliver care and the specific value and experience in a different way than you might be used to. From the operational standpoint, we're not trying to sell telehealth to people or sell them getting onboard with a platform, but it definitely touches our world in the marketing side because we have to market something to a patient that we feel good about and that we feel like patients really want.

Q: How has the pandemic changed this landscape?

A: COVID has been a huge challenge because many providers are adopting something really quickly that they don't yet know exactly how they want to use. In many cases they're doing it because they're trying to recover their financial losses. We coach them through how to market it and what patients will need to know. There are things patients might want to know before they have that experience. Types of care, types of technology, and a lot of patients will choose someone else if someone else seems like they have a clear, easy experience. With telehealth, you can choose any provider, and the laws have been loosened so you can choose a provider outside your state. That's temporary for now, but we've been helping a lot with those types of strategies. The two biggest new things we're working on is either promoting telehealth in some form or fashion — there are a lot of telehealth models out there, so we're implementing this in a variety of ways — and creating campaigns to help patients understand what the in-office experience will be like and reassure them that its safe. A lot of physicians are completely new to this.

The backstory

Full Media first launched in Northeast Georgia in 2008 and opened in Chattanooga two years later. Sauceman joined the company in 2013.


Q: Are there areas where telehealth just doesn't work?

A: Sometimes. For example, urgent care is not something that telehealth would traditionally be a part of. In urgent care, you can't take care of a broken bone with a telehealth visit, but you can do a lot of other things, like diagnose the flu and prescribe treatment. There are operational hurdles. Maybe the doctors are resistant, maybe implementing it is hard, or there's been a financial disincentive in the past. Now having a telehealth visit is about equal reimbursement for the provider, and for many this is the first time they're offering it. Or sometimes they were offering it in very specific cases and they never promoted it.

Q: The reimbursement factor has to be a big incentive to offer it.

A: Before the pandemic, insurers would reimburse far less for a telehealth visit than for a regular visit. That is one thing that's changed because of COVID. You can get a much higher level or reimbursement for telehealth than you could, and that's made it a lot more reasonable for providers to offer that. The large insurers are saying it's unlikely that will change. Doctors and health systems have been hit incredibly hard. It was meant to be a relief to their businesses, and it was also a public health move.

Q: Will these changes hang around post-pandemic?

A: I don't think we still know exactly what type of long term effect it's going to have. There are many ways that the people we serve have not fully felt the financial losses of this year, and a lot of things about the pandemic have spiked interest in a digital agency that really understands health care. They have this brand new service but they don't necessarily know how to use it as a competitive advantage. Digital is a super affordable, easy entry to these types of things and there's been a huge surge in time spent online as people have been at home.

Q: What about privacy for online visits — how do you handle HIPAA compliance?

A: When Full Media decided to shift to health care, that started the conversation really quickly about HIPAA compliance. In marketing there are a lot of interesting areas where you get into compliance, and there are a lot of questions about whether you should be the expert or whether the client should be the expert. When we decided to specialize in health care, we focused on HIPAA compliance. It's one of the most strict sets of laws that govern the internet and usage of information, and it was a big hurdle to go through financially and in terms of time, but we felt like it would be worth it. We could try to firewall ourselves from all patient information, but part of marketing is trying to understand return on investment and we wanted to be a partner in helping them track everything from on-site actions through to understand if marketing is getting patients in the door.

Q: Have those standards changed because of the pandemic?

A: HIPAA regulations have been relaxed right now for telehealth, which is one thing that has made it easier for providers to adopt it. Having Zoom and Webex patient meetings, they've been able to do that because some of the regulations around security have been relaxed. If you think about the potential negative health outcomes for people avoiding care, having access to care is more important, but it will be interesting to see what comes out of this and having to rein back in telehealth and making it compliant to the standards that we previously had. We may see providers struggling to make that jump over. But I think consumers have wanted this for a long time. To give it to consumers and take it away is a really bad call.