By Frank McGillin
Contrary to what many outside of healthcare circles might say, the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t spark the virtual healthcare revolution. The first iterations of virtual healthcare actually began emerging almost a decade ago, as wearable digital devices became available to remotely monitor various indicators of health. Think heart rate, cardiac rhythm, blood sugar levels and even sleep quality.
However, the pandemic did add fuel to the fire. As many providers limited in-person contact to all but the most urgent cases and procedures, virtual care entered the playing field as a viable strategy for continuing scheduled primary, behavioral health and specialty care appointments. At the height of the pandemic, telehealth accounted for 70% to 80% of care. Today, nearly 90% of clinicians still recommend digital health tools to patients, from remote consultations to mobile phone apps, wearable technologies and online support communities.
Now, as the sun begins rising on 2022, smart healthcare organizations are anticipating—and planning for—the next stage of telehealth’s evolution: Virtual Care 3.0. To stay ahead of the curve, healthcare leaders should explore ways to extend telehealth’s reach, deliver a better virtual experience and provide access to larger spheres of specialist care.
Telehealth for Longitudinal Healthcare
Competitive healthcare organizations will recognize telemedicine’s potential to enhance outcomes and reduce costs across the continuum of care as one of its most significant benefits. This is especially true with respect to patients living with diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions, who consume the largest portion of healthcare resources. Most of these patients suffer from at least one comorbidity, such as a mental health illness like depression or a physical condition such as obesity or chronic heart failure. Often, they are under the care of multiple physicians. Telehealth can help clinicians more effectively manage these individuals’ health across settings over time, including in the home. It’s an approach that can help keep care costs to a minimum by avoiding more costly settings of care. The result: enhanced ability to identify changes in disease progression and the effects of treatment and savings of more than $1,500 per avoided emergency department visit.
Virtual Concierge Healthcare
Smart healthcare systems and payers will also look for opportunities to join forces in providing consumers and patients with virtual concierge healthcare services. Traditional concierge medicine practices, as most already know, target patients who are willing to pay a large premium for VIP-level services, such as 24-hour access to physicians. Virtual concierge practices do much the same but are able to bring those services to a wider—even condition-specific—population of patients at significantly lower cost. During the pandemic, more consumers were willing to pay for concierge care—both private, in-person appointments and virtual access to specialist, on demand—to access more personalized care in safe and convenient settings.
For instance, The Clinic by Cleveland Clinic offers concierge-level service to health plans, providers, employers and healthcare consumers that includes on-demand access to second opinions from the top experts in the world. Tightly integrated support includes secure video consultations, digital record collection and two-week turnaround times from visit to analysis.
Another innovative concierge model provides personalized online primary care to a large patient base, with services segmented by target population for highly customized experiences. Member patients are matched to physicians based on their specific needs and care requirements. These physicians serve as dedicated care managers, providing their patients with virtual visits, remote monitoring and referrals to in-person providers, as needed.
Anywhere, Anytime Access to Specialist Consultation
One out of 10 patients with cancer, an infection or a major vascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke, are misdiagnosed each year. These conditions account for 75% of serious harm resulting from diagnostic error, most of which are the result of mistakes in clinical judgment. The chances of being misdiagnosed are especially high for people with complex medical conditions: 20% of people with serious illnesses are misdiagnosed, one study found.
Consequently, healthcare systems and payers that expect to remain competitive will provide consumers with on-demand access to specialists for consultations and second opinions—regardless of location. Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield is one example of a payer that has made it possible for cancer patients throughout the United States and abroad to receive expert second opinions virtually through its partnership with The Clinic by Cleveland Clinic. Indeed, the days of boarding a plane and flying to distant cities for a second opinion are numbered. As healthcare costs escalate, telemedicine can play an invaluable role in keeping care affordable for payers, employers and their members while ensuring access to the best available medical care and expertise.
Developing a Highly Responsive, Consumer-Centric Approach
Having received a taste of what virtual healthcare can do for them during the last two years, consumers are virtually certain (pun intended) to demand more of it from their providers, payers and employer health plans. Used to Zooming with friends, family, employers, and clients, they recognize that telehealth should be able to do more than simply offer the convenience of routine online care. It should also provide them with access to a higher level of care.
As they prepare for the New Year, smart healthcare organizations can stay ahead of the game with a future-focused approach that expands access, reduces costs and enhances the experience of care at every turn.
Frank McGillin is CEO of The Clinic by Cleveland Clinic.