Pivoting to Virtual Care: How Patients with Chronic Conditions Can be Supported During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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By Jacob Sattelmair DSc, MSc

The rise of chronic conditions, particularly multimorbidity, is one of the defining healthcare challenges of the 21st century. According to the CDC, 6 in 10 adults have a chronic disease, and 4 in 10 have two or more conditions. Chronic diseases are also among the leading causes of death in the U.S. and people with chronic disease account for 90 percent of the nation’s $3.5 trillion in annual health care costs. The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the chronic disease crisis, as those with underlying conditions are at increased risk of hospitalization and death due to COVID-19. 

We’ve observed that this pandemic may be driving those with chronic conditions to make a change. In fact, a recent survey conducted by Wellframe revealed that 74 percent of Americans with chronic conditions have been motivated by the pandemic to take better control of managing their health. But as we know too well, many bear the burden of managing a condition with little support from the healthcare system in between care settings. Amid this continued crisis, it’s more important than ever to offer these patients easy access to the kind of continuous care and support they need based on their unique health challenges.

Gaps in health support

Many still feel hesitant about seeking out care or scheduling routine appointments with their healthcare providers as the pandemic rages on and associated risks persist across much of the country. An upcoming report that will be published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found a significant drop in patients being treated for a STEMI, the blockage of one of the major arteries that supplies blood to the heart, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic – likely because they were fearful of being infected with coronavirus in the emergency room. This trend is being corroborated across medical fields as the virus surges in states across the country. With patients avoiding the hospital for even the most urgent care needs, it’s no surprise that routine medical visits have declined significantly. According to data from Wellframe’s COVID-19 Chronic Condition Patient Population Report, more than half of patients with chronic conditions have delayed receiving care as a result of the pandemic, either due to their doctor’s recommendations or their own reluctance to go to a medical facility. Furthermore, more than one in four (26%) has had trouble accessing their doctor because of the pandemic. 

These statistics are especially concerning considering that people with chronic conditions often face a variety of complex issues that require guidance from a medical professional. If they’re unable to access a trusted provider, some of these concerns may remain unaddressed and could potentially accelerate their disease progression. One method intended to improve outcomes among this population is to provide patients with a health regimen or care plan that they can follow on their own, between visits or clinical encounters. However, according to Wellframe’s research, most people with chronic conditions don’t have such a plan to help them take daily steps to feel their best, so it’s not surprising that more than one-third of those surveyed don’t feel confident in managing their condition.

Potential solutions 

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the necessity of providing patient care and monitoring remotely. One solution that has seen an explosion in use is telehealth for virtual visits with healthcare providers – the market has seen a 64.3% increase in demand in 2020

Despite the promise of telehealth and telemedicine, it’s subject to many of the same constraints as traditional medicine models — it’s still episodic and at present largely ill-suited to fulfill patients’ need for contiguous support in between provider visits. We’ve observed that health plans, focused on meeting the needs of high-risk patients, offer ongoing care management through digital channels that supplements the care offered by providers while helping patients manage their conditions day to day and navigate care across multiple providers. These care management teams, which include nurses, social workers and non-licensed carers, can help patients in a variety of ways, such as sticking with their care plans, staying on track with medications, attending appointments, monitoring symptoms, promoting healthful behaviors, offering psychosocial support and encouraging patients as they progress toward their health goals. 

Wellframe’s research revealed that there is a lack of awareness that this service is offered by health plans, as 37% of those surveyed were unfamiliar with the term “care management.” But once they were informed of its benefits, the majority of respondents felt that the concept of virtual support from a care management team would help them comply with their doctor’s recommendations during the pandemic. Ultimately, we’ve seen that health plans not only provide a holistic approach to chronic disease management, but with these solutions, can better partner and coordinate with providers by building on the care they offer, alleviating the burden of patient education, and engaging patients toward better outcomes.

Key Takeaways

Many people with chronic conditions need help at home to optimally manage their health. While telemedicine is critical to increase access to care, especially during a pandemic, its use does not address the support people need beyond those episodic encounters. Health plans have a major opportunity to offer digital health management solutions to their members, providing them with ongoing, convenient, and digitally-enabled support when they need it most. As we look ahead to the continued promise of telemedicine and telehealth, we need to embrace a broader definition of what digital can do to support people with chronic disease, and leverage digital health management as a way to evolve beyond traditional care models, not merely digitize them. 

Jacob Sattelmair DSc, MSc, is Co-founder, President and CEO of Wellframe.

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