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The arrival of COVID-19 in 2020 accelerated telehealth adoption practically overnight; health systems, providers, and patients had no option but to start meeting virtually. These virtual appointments became the go-to mode for any and all medical appointments that could be done without in-person procedures — primarily diagnostic visits. Telehealth had always been convenient, but in the context of a global pandemic, the safety benefits were a huge draw for patients and medical professionals alike.
Demand for telehealth services spiked in the early months of the pandemic — nearly 80-fold in February, March and April 2020, according to a McKinsey study. Telehealth visits the following year were still strong, settling at a robust rate of 38 times higher than before the word “COVID” became part of our everyday vocabulary.
Telehealth buy-in on the rise
Although our world is far more “in person” now than it has been for the past two and a half years, patients have embraced telehealth options and are sticking with them. A study by Jones Lang LaSalle early this year found that by March 2022, 38% of patients had already received virtual care. At Healthie, we saw a 600% increase in video visit utilization when the pandemic hit, and that utilization still hasn’t subsided.
The upshot? Telehealth could be here to stay. The McKinsey study found that telehealth is viewed more favorably by both providers and patients than it was pre-COVID. Many patients might not have opted on their own to try virtual doctor visits, but with the pandemic acting as a forcing mechanism, many found telehealth more effective and easier than they had believed. The study also found that investment in telehealth industry-wide has climbed rapidly, and permanent changes to Medicare and Medicaid regulations have encouraged further use of virtual care practices.
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The next question, then, is where we go from here. Telehealth can and will evolve beyond virtual doctor visits — it is a tool that can be integrated into various aspects of the patient experience. Telehealth is poised to take on a dramatically more important role in the healthcare system beyond the one it has played during the pandemic.
Telehealth and longitudinal care
Telehealth could lead the way for healthcare providers to do more in fields like nutrition, physical therapy, pregnancy care, health coaching and social work. The convenience created by this technology makes longitudinal care — which integrates various disease prevention and treatment plans into a system that documents and tracks patient progress over multiple sessions, over time — more personalized, efficient and workable for patients and providers alike. Healthcare and business models using telehealth advances to improve patient experiences and health outcomes are popping up and succeeding.
Beyond the convenience of telehealth — and its affordability for both parties — the practice helps specialized clinicians address aspects of an individual’s health that might not get covered solely in brief in-person visits. Notably, the combination of in-person and virtual visits has been shown to improve patients’ ability to continually attend appointments, reducing drop-off rates and improving patient outcomes. One study found that “telehealth services enriched longitudinal continuity, with 77% of respondents report[ing] being able to see their doctor more regularly and 82% indicating a greater ability to attend appointments due to less need for travel.”
Telehealth technologies can also go a long way toward building stronger patient-provider relationships, which are a cornerstone of good care and patient satisfaction. Expect to see providers lean into the potential of telehealth to supplement ongoing care plans with patients.
Integrating telehealth and wellness programs
As for how providers are leaning into telehealth-based programs, healthcare providers already have the hardest part taken care of: patient buy-in, thanks to an introduction to virtual care during the pandemic. Many clinicians also had their first telehealth experiences in 2020, so with both sides more comfortable using the technology, adoption will, in many cases, be easier than it might have been before COVID.
Still, not everyone has experienced virtual care yet, so there may be some who are still hesitant. In those situations, providers and clinicians should review their own rollout of telehealth in 2020 and see what approaches worked to introduce the technology to patients and what approaches didn’t, and see if they can address the holdouts’ hesitancy.
There are now more technology providers than ever before offering foundational platforms that intelligently integrate the logistical pieces of telehealth into everyday care strategies, whether those be billing, onboarding, calendar management, or other functions. Some even have telehealth functionality built into the platform so that providers can do everything from the same portal. Adoption of integrated platforms might finally spell the long-awaited end of siloed healthcare technology, which walls off integration and hampers effective patient care.
This lack of technical friction on the providers’ side frees up their talented (and already very busy) personnel to focus on what they’re there to do first and foremost: deliver exceptional care. Providers shouldn’t need to build the technology in the background, and in 2023 they don’t have to.
Legacy technology platforms have long resisted interoperability, locking in customers and revenues. But a new generation of integrated platforms that use secure, compliant data-bridging provides so much more for healthcare providers. Built with interoperability and collaboration in mind, this technology allows for needed advances like integrated telehealth services to be put in place without placing a huge burden on those already focused on caring for patients.
Improved long-term healthcare delivery
Additionally, telehealth tools allow providers to open up and offer new areas of care for patients. After all, the video visit is just one small component of the overall patient experience. Day-to-day synchronous and asynchronous interactions (such as webinar or program participation, personalized care plan review, goal setting and adherence, and performance logging and tracking) are necessary components of successful longitudinal care.
What we’re seeing is a positive step toward improved, long-term healthcare delivery. Greater access and the reduced costs of utilizing the technology effectively is driving innovation in the entire industry. Virtual-first healthcare companies are redefining the longitudinal care experience and finding better and better ways to deliver personalized and effective care with ease and cost efficiency.
Refreshing the screen
We’re still early in the game when it comes to the innovations we’re going to see in healthcare thanks to telehealth technology. The unparalleled levels of venture investment and the thousands of new companies in the space are signs of incredible momentum and potential that could lead us to a healthcare system rooted in preventative, longitudinal and multidisciplinary care that centers patient outcomes.
The most innovative care you can see today is virtual-first and happening outside of the hospital. We call this upcoming wave “Telehealth 2.0,” and it’s what we believe the future holds for telehealth delivery, combining technology with a longitudinal provider and care team to create a better patient experience than we’ve seen to date. We have a lot of ground to cover to make that a reality, and now is the time to build on this momentum and usher in a new baseline for delivering healthcare.
Erica Jain is cofounder and CEO of Healthie.
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