By Erin Jospe, MD, chief medical officer, Kyruus.
The digital age has changed our interactions and expectations in ways both big and small—from how we shop and travel, to how we communicate and connect with one another. As with all other industries, the pressures and the possibilities of these technological advancements has spurred digital innovation in healthcare.
However, with the additional stressors of COVID-19, the healthcare industry’s acceptance and adoption of these applications has skyrocketed, as has the opportunity to explore creative uses of these platforms while examining ways to improve both outcomes and experiences.
Virtual care, broadly defined as remote interactions between patients and healthcare providers, has been a part of the healthcare delivery ecosystem for years. It has been an option for some patients, particularly for low-acuity episodic care where convenience is the highest priority when resolving the clinical need, but it has not been widely pursued nor embraced by either providers or patients until now.
In a recent survey of 1,000 patients who utilized virtual care in 2020, 72% had their first-ever virtual visit during the pandemic. With the sudden onset of COVID-19, convenience was no longer the sole driver for pursuing virtual care, but rather a combination of safety, speed of access, and convenience.
Given that the majority of patients using virtual care are new to this care delivery method, health systems need to educate the patient community on both the availability of these types of appointments and on what to expect before, during, and after them. In the aforementioned survey, 52% of respondents received outreach from their established providers, with an additional 15% and 13% hearing from their health system and insurance companies, respectively.
Rather than going through a third-party vendor for virtual care, 80% of respondents had virtual visits with established providers and the majority of those appointments were for wellness check-ins (41%) and management of chronic conditions (30%). This suggests a pivot from virtual care’s traditional role primarily for low-acuity clinical needs.
Out of the almost 20% of respondents who saw new providers, the most common reasons were for acute medical issues or COVID-19-related symptoms. Thus, virtual care is finding its place both as an alternative care model with a patient’s established provider and as a means of obtaining acute care where an established relationship is secondary to convenience and accessibility.
While there has been significant traction around both provider and patient awareness and adoption of virtual care, understanding their satisfaction with the experience and looking for opportunities to enhance virtual care delivery is crucial to its ongoing success; 77% of patients said they were very or completely satisfied with their virtual care experiences and 50% would even be willing to switch providers to have access to virtual visits in the future.
Thus, we should conclude that virtual care is worthy of continued investment, particularly as patients increasingly seek out providers and healthcare organizations that enable access to virtual care when appropriate. Virtual care is clearly not a flash in the pan; its successful footprint in 2020 may have been sped up by COVID-19, but it will outlast this pandemic.
The next step for health systems is to continue to evolve and improve virtual care. Though patients are overwhelmingly satisfied, the widespread offering of virtual care came out of clinical necessity and often without the typical rigor surrounding new offerings. We should now be asking ourselves how to evolve the current state of digital health.
For example, of the 1,000 patients surveyed, only 35% received follow-up communication from their primary care provider and only 45% understood what the next steps were or how to access virtual care moving forward. This is not just a poor experience; it can also result in poor outcomes. Ensuring patient understanding of next steps after a visit is challenging in both brick-and-mortar clinical settings as well as virtual clinical interactions.
We should examine what has worked well in traditional care settings and what can be recreated—or reinvented—for the digital space. Likewise, setting expectations for what will happen over the course of the appointment and after is important to position patients, providers, and clinical staff for an optimal experience.
As we continue to evolve patient access in this pandemic and plan for the future, it should not be a question of whether to offer virtual care appointments, but rather, how to set the stage for an ever-improving healthcare delivery platform.