Despite the pendulum swing back toward in-person appointments after the pandemic, virtual healthcare remains on the rise. This step-change in care delivery is driven by consumer demands, improved technology, and regulatory changes allowing greater access and reimbursement.
Virtual healthcare enables patients to access care when and where it’s most convenient. One of the benefits of virtual healthcare is that patients don’t have to spend time in traffic or waiting at the doctor’s office, and they can use telehealth services on their smartphones and other devices.
In addition to video calls, a patient might receive text messages or emails from their provider. These can include test results, medication lists, and summaries of previous visits. Patients can also upload data from their health monitors, such as blood sugar levels, heart rate, or a device that tracks posture or tremors, to their provider’s platform.
Virtual options are especially useful in rural areas, where it can take up to 34 minutes on average to get to a doctor’s office. They can also save money for patients and providers since a visit to the emergency room is often more expensive than a virtual visit. For example, one study found that virtual care lowered overall costs by 17 percent when used with existing providers.
Ease of Access
Sometimes, virtual care can offer an apples-to-apples replacement for in-person meetings. For example, suppose a video conference replaces an in-person visit to the doctor’s office. In that case, a patient should be able to experience a similar type of interaction as they would in an appointment at a provider’s office.
This convenience can help reduce strain on the healthcare system, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, patients with medical anxiety may find it easier to communicate with a physician without traveling and potentially exposing others to a contagious virus.
However, structural barriers can hinder the adoption of virtual healthcare. For instance, people in rural areas and those with low incomes have been less likely to use telemedicine services. Waiving copayments and incentivizing care models for these populations could help drive up adoption rates.
Additionally, accelerating the development of a consumer-focused digital “front door” that includes virtual care capabilities could help drive greater uptake. This could include e-triage, scheduling visits with physicians, and even virtual clinics that address low acuity needs.
Virtual healthcare makes it easier for patients to see specialists who may not be available locally. It also allows doctors to collaborate across disciplines, which improves patient outcomes. For example, primary care doctors can work with specialist physicians to decide the best treatment plan for a specific illness. This reduces the likelihood that a patient will be transferred to another hospital for more specialized care, which can save time and money.
Using virtual healthcare can also make it easier to manage chronic health conditions. For example, patients can upload data from home, such as blood pressure or glucose readings. This can be reviewed by a nurse or other healthcare team member, who can make recommendations or give advice.
In addition, telehealth can eliminate language barriers. For example, a tablet VRI cart can bring expert translators worldwide into a doctor’s office to communicate with non-English speaking patients. This is especially helpful for people living in rural communities where finding translators is difficult. It can also decrease the need for staff to travel, which can help reduce healthcare costs.
In addition to convenience and accessibility, virtual care provides a safe way for people to get the help they need. It can help reduce germ transmission and avoid the spread of illness in crowded waiting rooms. Additionally, it can help people with medical anxiety or those who are too sick to go to the doctor’s office by providing them with a safe and comfortable way to connect with their healthcare provider.
Patients and providers can exchange information in real-time or asynchronously with telehealth. The former allows for immediate access to a physician or nurse. The latter can allow for follow-up visits that may take longer but still offer the same care as an in-person visit.
A concern of some is that a virtual visit can miss information that would be caught during an in-person appointment, increasing the risk of a misdiagnosis or other medical error. However, this type of concern is easily mitigated by ensuring that virtual healthcare solutions are developed with the proper safeguards.
Additionally, patients should always check with their insurance providers to see what coverage is available and how much these services cost (they can often be HSA/FSH eligible expenses). The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that telehealth is a valuable tool in the fight against disease transmission and can greatly enhance patient safety.
Telehealth lets patients stay home when sick if they have trouble traveling or don’t live close to medical centers. Patients can also see specialists that don’t live where they do.
But, virtual healthcare is only for some. Some healthcare providers may need access to your full medical history, increasing the risk of misdiagnosis or inappropriate treatment. Choosing doctors you feel comfortable with is important, especially if they are not your primary care physician or specialist.
Another concern is that virtual options are only sometimes affordable for all patients. Payers could address this by waiving copayments, providing other incentives for adoption, and creating specialized virtual care workflow for targeted populations. It is also important to focus on expanding the use of virtual healthcare in rural areas where healthcare is scarce.