2023 Telehealth Report

Public health departments can serve a critical role in telehealth and using technology to improve people's health. The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) published a report that looks at telehealth practices across Washington, the telehealth policy landscape, and the future of telehealth. The report includes input from more than 50 professionals engaged in telehealth.

Read the Full Report

Report Summary

A patient talks to a physician on their laptop at home

The COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst for innovation across the health ecosystem, from how people access effective COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and other public health services, to how patients virtually engage their providers through telehealth. Telehealth in the health care setting rapidly evolved from being a fringe service with low utilization to a generally accepted means for people to access care.

DOH used telehealth during the pandemic to protect providers and the public. As we move beyond the pandemic, telehealth is a promising tool to increase equitable access to health care and public health services.

The purpose of this report is to:

  • Provide visibility on current telehealth practices across the Washington state health ecosystem
  • Describe the policy landscape for telehealth, especially for public health purposes
  • Describe potential future actions to increase equitable access through telehealth innovation

The findings in this report are based on interviews with 50 professionals, internally and externally, engaged in telehealth, as well as a literature review.

Transformational Plan

In 2022, DOH unveiled its guiding blueprint, the Transformational Plan, A Vision for Health in Washington State, which encompasses telehealth. DOH renewed its commitment to our cornerstone values of equity, innovation, and engagement.

Additionally, the plan calls out health systems and workforce transformation, which includes investing in and supporting innovative health information technologies and infrastructure support. It also requires investing in previously developed tools, technologies, and strategies, including ones utilized during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And finally, the plan names transformations in action that include, innovation and technology, community centered, visibility and value, equity driven and collaborative engagement that each drive how we will do our work.

Policy Recommendations

DOH needs to examine our commitment to these values and priorities within its current and future roles in telehealth. As we look ahead, policy recommendations include:  

  • Enhancing internal and external DOH coordination of telehealth:
    • DOH should convene a telehealth workgroup, possibly including telehealth providers and community partners, to better identify and address telehealth-related issues across the agency.
    • DOH should identify DOH staff to represent our agency with strategic partners, track the rapidly evolving policy landscape, and help lead internal coordination.
    • DOH should utilize regulatory tools, including training, to assist health care providers in maintaining quality care via telehealth.
  • Interoperability of systems: DOH should prioritize resources to support digital health systems and a workforce capable of successfully using advanced technologies to support creation of bidirectional interoperable data systems.
  • Mapping out funding: DOH must identify additional funding opportunities, especially in interoperability of systems funds. One source of funding is the HRSA Office of the Advancement of Telehealth funding for telehealth in Washington.
  • Planning for enacting or scaling up digital health.
  • Using telehealth to connect with and serve vulnerable and underserved populations:
    • Partner/pilot programs with colleagues like academic institutions and health care partners to support development of telehealth applications.
    • DOH should use regulatory tools, including training, to assist health care providers in maintaining quality care via telehealth.
  • Building in data collection and evaluation for telehealth programs:
    • DOH should continue efforts to understand how telehealth affects people and evaluating its uses should be paramount as technology becomes more intertwined with public health.
    • DOH could contribute to the research base in various ways and to CDC published focus areas that need additional public health research.

The speed of change will only increase with the advent of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and ever-increasing use of digital technology across the health ecosystem. This report serves as a clarion call that state public health agencies must prioritize resources and quickly expand agency telehealth knowledge and capacity to continue serving as a leader in the health ecosystem.