By Amy Miller, regional director of growth, AMD Global Telemedicine.
Fewer Americans were visiting primary care providers even before the pandemic.
According to a long-term study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, the number of U.S. adults with a primary care physician slipped from 77% in 2002 to 75% in 2015. It’s a seemingly slight decline that nonetheless represents millions of patients. And due to the pandemic, fear of entering hospitals will continue exacerbating the issue, causing health systems to miss out on long-term revenue-building relationships. Fortunately, virtual care can fill in the gaps if healthcare organizations implement it appropriately.
COVID-19 made people cautious about nonessential in-person interactions, but it also encouraged them to try new technological solutions ranging from shopping for groceries online to telehealth visits with physicians. According to Kyruus’ “Patient Perspectives on Virtual Care Report,” 72% of patients surveyed tried virtual care for the first time during the pandemic, and more than 75% of them were “very satisfied.” In fact, nearly three-quarters of respondents want virtual care to be an option in the future, and half would switch providers to ensure they have that choice.
Taking Telehealth Further
The videoconference model of telehealth popularized during the pandemic has been incredibly effective at extending access to care, but it does have limitations. In particular, video-only virtual care doesn’t allow for the real-time transmission of diagnostic data from medical devices, including stethoscopes, EKGs, and ultrasounds. By offering virtual care models that integrate medical devices, physicians can diagnose and treat a wider variety of patients with more accuracy. Facilities can also extend care to treat and bill higher-acuity patients.
Patients and providers currently use telehealth primarily for one-off appointments, but organizations can leverage a more adaptable telehealth program across the care continuum and at multiple touchpoints. Achieving this goal will require health systems to view telehealth as a key part of care delivery instead of an exception. To embrace telehealth and reap the benefits of improved service quality and patient retention, healthcare leaders should follow three key steps:
- Fill service gaps.
A recent analysis of telehealth use by Americans during the pandemic found that a large number of patients sought care for behavioral health issues. Many health systems responded by doubling down on the audiovisual technology necessary to connect these patients with behavioral treatment options.
Now, hospitals must identify new service gaps and expand their programs to fill them. By doing so, they can build on an existing foundation to deliver better care across a broader range of conditions. If patients can get all their primary and specialty services in a single place, they’ll have fewer reasons to look elsewhere.
- Keep it simple.
According to J.D. Power’s second annual “U.S. Telehealth Satisfaction Study,” convenience is a primary driver of telehealth adoption. Without an easy-to-use telehealth platform, patients might be unlikely to continue virtual care. Ensure that scheduling and attending appointments is easy and patients don’t have to spend time learning how to navigate complex software. An intuitive, user-friendly solution will help hospitals and health systems retain more patients over the long run.
- Improve flexibility.
Not all patients feel comfortable waiting until a scheduled appointment is available. Giving them a way to see their healthcare professional at their immediate time of need will help providers build trust and encourage patients to rely on virtual services.
Many patients, particularly in pediatric or geriatric settings, will also need a loved one or guardian present. Additional care providers or specialists can also be a valuable presence, so telehealth platforms with the flexibility to include more than two participants are critical.
The pandemic accelerated the adoption of telehealth, but health systems can’t take this evolution for granted. If they hope to retain patients in the future, they’ll need to develop flexible, adaptable virtual care programs that improve the quality of service delivery and promote long-term patient engagement. Telehealth has vast potential, and current implementations are just scratching the surface. It’s time for healthcare leaders to dream bigger when it comes to virtual care.