The widespread adoption of mobile technology has dramatically changed the healthcare landscape in the United States. There are approximately 260 million smartphone users in America, and roughly half of the country’s population own tablet computers. Clinicians and both patients utilize these mobile devices to more easily access health information.
Although virtual care was being used increasingly over the past few years, it exploded onto the scene during the COVID-19 pandemic. To meet the needs of patients and sustain revenue for physician practices during the COVID-19 pandemic, most private payers expanded their coverage of virtual health.
Roughly 60 percent of patients experienced their first virtual visit during the pandemic, 91 percent of whom report feeling “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with the experience. It’s a trend that will most likely continue with Gen Z patients, about 40 percent of whom prefer digital or virtual experiences with medical professionals.
What exactly is virtual care, sometimes referred to as virtual health? It’s defined as the use of enabling technology, including video, mobile apps (mHealth), text-based messaging, sensors and social platforms, to deliver health services in a way that is independent of time or location. Most patients are most aware of the two most utilized types of virtual care, telehealth and telemedicine.
A Burgeoning Trend Offering Numerous Advantages
Some experts estimate that uses of virtual care in annual patient visits, ongoing patient management and self-care could generate an economic value of approximately $10 billion annually across the U.S. health system. A report released by McKinsey & Company theorizes that as much as $250 billion of current U.S. healthcare spending could be virtualized.
Patients aren’t the only ones with a favorable opinion of virtual care. Physicians are more accepting of virtual care as another form of care than they are of new technologies, with about 90 percent of doctors agreeing it’s beneficial in terms of increased access, communication and satisfaction.
Multiple types of non-acute care are able to be conducted virtually, such as on-demand virtual urgent care, virtual office visits, near-virtual office visits, virtual home health services and tech-enabled home medication administration. Others can be offered through a hybrid care model, which combines virtual and in-person experiences across the full continuum of care. One example is virtual waiting rooms, designed to assist in-office patients in avoiding the traditional ‘waiting room’ experience and speeding patient flow while also offering healthcare provider staff with a resource to better manage the flow of telehealth patients.
Through virtual care, healthcare providers are able to:
- See more patients in less time, resulting in increased reimbursement and patient satisfaction
- Securely access shared records from a mobile device
- Quickly and cost-effectively communicate with other physicians on patient care
- Accurately record clinical data
- Provide more access to lower cost care for low-acuity patient encounters
- Experience fewer staffing inefficiencies
- Promote easier access to specialists and subspecialists as necessary
- Support consumer-directed care and value-based models
Similarly, patients who utilize virtual care have access to advantages, including:
- 24/7 access to healthcare
- Elimination of long and unnecessary wait times
- Improved and less costly emergency care
- Enhanced understanding of post-hospitalization care plans
- Increased access to care, both preventive and medical, for residents living in rural communities
- Less exposure to infectious diseases, especially for those who are chronically ill, pregnant, elderly or immunocompromised
- Reduced or eliminated need for travel to access care
- More private access to mental health resources
The Expansion of Telehealth
As we mentioned earlier in this blog, telehealth and telemedicine are the two most utilized types of virtual care. Nearly half of all U.S. physicians are using these technologies to treat patients because they can reach out to patients facing transitions in care, close patient gaps in care and track adherence for patients with chronic care management plans.
The goals of telehealth are to make healthcare accessible to people who live in rural or isolated communities; make services more readily available or convenient for people with limited mobility, time, or transportation options; provide access to medical specialists; improve communication and coordination of care among members of a healthcare team and a patient; and provide support for self-management of healthcare. Along with other digital health and virtual care technologies and services, telehealth supports consumer-directed care and value-based models and provides technology infrastructure for population-health initiatives.
Used most commonly in the medical fields of dermatology, urology, chronic disease, intensive care and mental health, telehealth gives physicians a resource to reduce the cost of care. For doctors who serve residents living in rural areas of the U.S., the technology enables them to connect virtually with clinicians at larger hospitals who may be able to better diagnose a serious health problem or offer more extensive treatment options.
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