A traditional outlook on healthcare is that patients are best served by care delivered in person during a physical office visit. Some structural challenges within the healthcare system are making this kind of care harder and harder to deliver, from the increase in healthcare costs at a rate far above inflation and the shortage of physicians across many specialties to the changing demographics of the United States, characterized by a growing percentage of older adults, many of whom have more extensive needs in a healthcare direction. Virtual care technology may be one of the major ways we can change how healthcare is delivered to meet the growing needs of the U.S. population.
What Is Virtual Health?
It is important to understand the breadth of services and healthcare provision that falls under the heading of virtual health. According to the Harvard Business Review, virtual health “refers to the use of enabling technology—such as video, mobile apps, text-based messaging, sensors, and social platforms—to deliver health services in a way that is independent of time or location” (Safavi and Dare, 2018).
Some Challenges for Virtual Health
A McKesson article looks at this type of care delivery and identifies some of the challenges that exist. Three important ones are (1) profit margin – whether professionals and organizations will accept the lower fees and reimbursement that may come with a telehealth type of encounter; (2) utilization – virtual health visits have to replace more expensive office visits for this system to gain efficiencies rather than just generate more interactions due to ease of access; and (3) misdiagnosis – if virtual care is not the right venue for a care visit, leading to misdiagnosis or unnecessary prescriptions, it may just multiply the interactions necessary to resolve a healthcare situation (Rodgers, 2015).
Opportunities for Virtual Healthcare to Make a Real Difference
There are also some significant ways in which virtual healthcare delivery can fill some big gaps in the healthcare system. The McKesson article outlines several:
Front-Line Care in the form of house calls as a covered benefit to extend a health plan or system’s available clinicians and care.
Monitoring Patients after Hospital Discharges to maintain continuity of care, ensure treatment adherence, and prevent unnecessary readmissions.
Ensure Behavioral Health Treatment Continuity by regular assessment of mental health issues, medication management, and especially allowing patients uneasy with in-person visits to maintain behavioral health treatment.
Treating Chronic Conditions with virtual healthcare can cut down on expensive, frequent in-person appointments that also may be hard to keep for patients. Because patients with chronic conditions often generate a major amount of healthcare expenses, this is a great place to use a different, effective treatment option and yet maintain continuity of care (Rodgers, 2015).
Predictions for the Future of Virtual Care
Many people in healthcare believe that virtual care will continue to increase in healthcare. A 2019 HealthLeaders article asked industry leaders about their predictions for the near future and virtual care, and they were optimistic about its prospects. Here are three predictions they made:
Reimbursement changes will spur growth; new CMS billing codes and other legal developments will be matched by the efforts of Medicare Advantage plans to use virtual care to enhance whole-person care and work to reduce expensive readmissions.
Virtual care will go further beyond its current focus on the Direct-to-Consumer market; as one interviewee put it, “customer service via online access is great, but the real opportunity is leveraging telehealth to deal with chronic illness, mental health and the opiate crisis.”
Technological advances from such directions as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will expand the practice of virtual care; innovations like wearables and home-based diagnostic kits will be integrated with telehealth, virtual health clinics, and in-person care to allow patients “to get the right care at the right time and at the right price” (Roth, 2019).
Ultimately, we need virtual care, because the current healthcare industry is not able to meet all the demands patients are making of it. Importantly, virtual health hold the “potential to boost the capacity of primary care doctors — without adding or training more professionals — at a time when the American Association of Medical Colleges projects a shortage of as many as 40,000 primary care physicians (PCPs) in the next decade” (Safavi and Dare, 2018). This situation will be even worse as those demands grow with demographic changes that we all know are coming. For this to succeed, “Telehealth must evolve from a standalone consumer and acute care model, outside of the continuum of care for patients. It must become a recognized and valued segment of the care continuum, connected to all the other links in the chain of delivering care” (Rodgers, 2015).
Rodgers, T., “The Challenges and Opportunities of Telemedicine,” McKesson, November 18, 2015, Retrieved at https://www.mckesson.com/blog/the-challenges-and-opportunities-of-telemedicine/.
Roth, M., “3 Predictions for Virtual Care in 2019,” HealthLeaders, Janueary 3, 2019, Retrieved at https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/innovation/3-predictions-virtual-care-2019.
Safavi, K., and Dare, F., “Virtual Health Care Could Save the U.S. Billions Each Year
Safavi, K., and Dare, F., “Virtual Health Care Could Save the U.S. Billions Each Year,” Harvard Business Review, April 3, 2018, Retrieved at https://hbr.org/2018/04/virtual-health-care-could-save-the-u-s-billions-each-year.
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