Have you seen your healthcare provider lately? You know — actually seen someone in person in an office setting?
Probably not, and you’re not alone. The COVID-19 pandemic has made Americans learn how to work, shop, and socialize remotely. It’s also taught us how to manage our healthcare through virtual visits — telehealth — with our primary care providers.
Telehealth is a concept that’s been tossed around since the onset of the Internet revolution. Payers and providers have been reluctant to use it because no payment methods or models had been developed. They avoided it like it was a drug therapy lacking FDA approval.
That’s all changing now, due to COVID-19. Providers see it as an asset they can use to make their practice more efficient and immediate. Plus, use of telehealth helps keep care teams and patients safe.
Something big waits just over the horizon
Now, even fee-for-services providers are actually paying attention to telehealth’s massive potential for routine care. They see a big opportunity, but one whose potential has yet to be fully realized. Hurdles in technology, regulatory restrictions, and education — patients, providers, and payers alike — have yet to be overcome.
Research firm Frost & Sullivan recently issued a reportasserting that we'd all better be prepared for a "tsunami of growth" in telehealth. Its use is up more than 64% due to COVID-19 and expected to increase seven-fold by 2025 – a five-year compound annual growth rate of 38.2%.
They advise providers and patients to be ready as its application spreads to other clinical uses. One-stop virtual visits and remote patient monitoring will become the norm.
According to a recently published study, virtual urgent care visits for a large New York health system grew by 683%, and non-urgent virtual care visits grew by a staggering 4,345% percent between March 2 and April 14. Telemedicine usage was highest by patients 20 to 44 years of age, particularly for urgent care. It’s fair to call it an evidence-based solution.
As should be obvious, providers and vendors both face big challenges, but there are also big opportunities. Among those areas for growth we see a future with more user-friendly sensors and remote diagnostic equipment, enabling better patient outcomes.
Remote devices mean remote data collection at the caregiver end, monitoring chronic conditions like diabetes or cardiac conditions, for example.
And in a rapidly digitizing world, all that data will surely lead to higher utilization of artificial intelligence (AI) for all levels of patient care, including interactive virtual assistants. The next phase, they say: robots providing routine and specialty care.
Frost & Sullivan add a caveat of sorts:
“Stakeholders need to remember that many people use the terms 'telehealth' or 'telemedicine' without understanding the ecosystem that is involved.”
The problem? Remote care delivery requires a coordinated environment. Simply stated, telehealth requires the kind of agility made possible through advanced primary care (APC).
Agility: not just for athletes and dancers
Most primary care providers function in more or less self-contained, fixed environments. Plus, payers, health systems, and providers typically all have competing goals. Any change in care delivery requires negotiations and compromise, with the patient often being lost in the shuffle. Nothing nimble or agile about any of that. Alignment matters.
Without the proper alignment, agility is impossible. Once goals and incentives are aligned with patient outcomes, quick pivots to meet emergent needs that safeguard population healthcare — like delivering care via telehealth — are possible. Alignment puts agility into action.
Alignment removes confusion because the entire primary care experience can be designed to support a single set of population health goals, with every level of the system working together. If a payer controls primary care, they can build a care delivery model and payment structure aligned around outcomes rather than procedure reimbursement.
A turn for the better
Anyone who has followed the news this year has seen COVID-19 expose healthcare's systemic weakness. Payers who had already invested in APC were able to make immediate changes on the front lines.
Their ability to pivot — that agility — allowed them to meet the immediate needs of patients needing treatment for the coronavirus while continuing to serve the needs of the rest of their population.
The best way for payers to achieve agility in moments of crisis like COVID-19 is by controlling the primary care system. With dedicated primary care, quick pivots and adjustments to care delivery — like seamlessly integrating telehealth into care processes — become possible in a fraction of the time required in a typical health system. That’s where a partner like Vera can make all the difference.
As popular as telehealth has become since the onset of the pandemic, recent adopters are actually late arrivals. Our VeraDirect appdebuted in 2017, allowing patients with a smartphone, tablet, or computer to connect with a provider 24/7 from anywhere — whenever and wherever it's convenient. Patients can then resolve their concerns or decide with their provider’s input if an office appointment is necessary.