The COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst for the expansion and uptake of telehealth and virtual care for office visits and outpatient care, which rose from less than 1% utilization in 2019 to more than 50% at the height of the pandemic in 2020. Now, as the pandemic stabilizes, virtual care visits have declined significantly and have largely stabilized at about 10% of health care visits. Precision’s Elizabeth Oyekan and Reta Mourad discuss three reasons that virtual care and telehealth care are here to stay.
The rise of virtual care: Implications across the health care continuum
Over the last several years, health plans and systems have been exploring the use of virtual care and telehealth and their roles in care delivery. The COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst for the expansion and uptake of telehealth and virtual care for office visits and outpatient care, which rose from less than 1% utilization in 2019 to more than 50% at the height of the pandemic in 2020.
Now, as the pandemic stabilizes, virtual care visits have declined significantly and have largely stabilized at about 10% of health care visits. While this remains considerably higher than pre-pandemic use, a question remains: Will the use of virtual care and telehealth subside, or will it continue to be a significant component of how we deliver care?
Virtual care and telehealth care are most likely here to stay for several reasons, including new patient and consumer expectations, the rise of new virtual care delivery models by giant entities such as Amazon, proven outcomes — especially in managing mental health (https://www.benefitspro.com/sites/benefitspro/2022/05/16/employer-medicalclaims-likely-miss-75-of-employee-mental-health-issues/) and other chronic conditions (https://www.benefitspro.com/sites/benefitspro/2022/05/09/3-strategies-to-curb-skyrocketing-costs-for-chronicconditions/), and health plans building new and less expensive integrated virtual health benefit products.
Virtual care access models
Consumers are increasingly being introduced to the convenience of a seamless, virtual-first, quality care experience where the front door for non-emergent and primary care needs would be digital no matter where the person is located. These digital and virtual systems can triage a person to the appropriate care needed — from a phone call or a video visit, to the need for an in-person doctor’s appointment.
Companies such as Amazon, Teladoc, MDLIVE, Amwell, and many others, are enabling consumers to connect with doctors, therapists, and specialists within minutes to address conditions such as the flu, infections, anxiety, stress, skin conditions, and various chronic conditions. Patients can obtain advice on potentially serious medical conditions at any time of the day or night by phone, video, or app, and doctors are often able to send necessary prescriptions electronically to nearby pharmacies.
With the increased use of virtual services, these new virtual care delivery models have gained a solid footing in delivering health care almost anytime and anywhere. These models are also focusing on whole-person virtual care (https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/finance/teladoc-finalizes-blockbuster-deal-livongo-less-than-three-months) and leveraging applied analytics, expert guidance, and connected technology to deliver, enable, and empower better health outcomes.
Provider comfort and ease with new tools
With these new models comes the need to educate providers and health care staff on how to leverage virtual tools effectively and confidently. While a few providers and their staff leveraged telehealth before the COVID-19 pandemic, the pandemic forced countless additional providers and staff to get up to speed with this technology seemingly overnight. Over the past two years, many organizations have incorporated the following to foster, grow, and maintain the patientprovider relationship in the growing virtual and telehealth technology environment:
- Provider and clinical staff training to allow everyone to learn the ins and outs of telehealth technology – allowing for scenarios where people can make mistakes, learn from them, and continually get more familiar with the technology
- Creation of virtual scenarios to make initial virtual visits with patients feel much more positive and seamless
- Taking patients through various real-life virtual scenarios with providers tasked with noting what they liked or disliked about the online appointment structure, as well as the overall experience (eg, logging in for an appointment, navigating the solution, physician performance). This feedback is used to further educate providers and staff
The new integrated ecosystem
Integrated health care delivery networks (IDNs) and systems like Ascension Health, Geisinger, and Kaiser Permanente are leveraging the use of virtual health models and their electronic health record (EHR) systems to integrate patient care across the care continuum while providing consumers with a “one stop shop” care delivery model for doctor visits, pharmacy, lab work, and other services no matter where the patient or consumer is. The results include improved quality of care and, in some cases, enhanced costs savings from efficiencies, economies of scale, reduction in duplication of services, and influencing prescribing behaviors.
Many organizations are looking to optimize the IDN model and often go beyond to create their own integrated ecosystem to influence all aspects – similar to what Apple did in the digital world. For example, Optum’s integrated system leverages the following components — Optum Virtual Care, OptumHealth, Optum Insights, OptumRx, and its UHC partnership — to transform the care continuum for its 99 million consumers, starting from their onset of needs and continuing throughout the patient journey. Leveraging data analytics, technology, and clinical insights, Optum is also able to improve clinical care, performance, and outcomes while managing drug costs and care utilization to improve overall health system performance. (https://www.unitedhealthgroup.com/who-we-are/businesses/optum.html)
CVS Health is also leveraging its variety of virtual and in-person care solutions (https://cvshealth.com/health-withheart/building-healthy-communities)to create an integrated experience for consumers — from the comfort of their homes to getting care at one of CVS’s approximately 10,000 stores around the country, which are being transformed into new “front doors” to health by providing affordable and quality care, chronic condition management, and wellness and preventive services closer to communities nationwide.
The use of virtual care and telehealth will most likely remain a part of how we deliver care moving forward as health systems, health plans, virtual health entities, and patient demand continues to grow. As providers gain confidence and efficiencies in using these tools, coupled with appropriate compensation for the use of these technologies to deliver care, virtual health care will further take root and become an integral part of the quest for value-based care where patient and population outcomes will be optimized, the patient experience enhanced, and the total cost of care reduced.
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