By David Cohen
If there’s one lesson to take away from 2020, it was to expect – and prepare for – the unexpected. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit at the beginning of the year, it became clear that most businesses were “virtually” unprepared.
COVID-19 infections soared, forcing healthcare providers to pivot almost overnight. Not only did they have to ramp up telehealth offerings to address new demand while keeping their staff safe, they also needed to ensure they could continue seeing existing patients seeking regular appointments or needing care for chronic conditions. As a result, virtual visits and other digital patient engagement activities quickly became the norm. And patients soon began to appreciate these new ways of interacting and communicating with their providers.
At the Medical Group Management Association’s (MGMA) virtual Medical Practice Excellence Conference (MPEC) this year, conversations around how to successfully transform practices to embrace more virtual care offerings will be front and center. Looking ahead to a post-COVID healthcare environment, it’s critical for practices to implement virtual care more strategically in order to best focus on patients’ needs in an era of healthcare consumerism, improve outcomes as part of a value-based care model and drive greater efficiency in the practice.
Fulfilling Consumer Demand for Virtual Care
Consumer demand for virtual care visits is stronger than ever. Forrester predicts that more than 1 billion virtual visits will take place this year, fueled in large part by COVID-19. Driving this demand are policy changes that reduced barriers to virtual care during the pandemic, as well as a desire to limit in-person exposure, manage a surge in patients, protect staff and preserve personal protective equipment. A McKinsey & Co. report estimated that healthcare providers saw between 50 and 175 times more patients via telehealth during the pandemic than during previous times.
This growth in demand has left many providers in catch-up mode as they try to ramp up virtual care offerings. Forrester has also stated that only about 24% of U.S. healthcare organizations had a virtual care program at the beginning of 2020, leading to a scramble to implement solutions that enabled them to continue delivering acute, chronic, primary and specialty care during times of quarantine and social distancing. And even after a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available, studies show consumers will continue to seek virtual health options due to the convenience and continuity of care. In fact, nearly three-quarters of all patients have stated being very satisfied with their virtual care experience during the pandemic, and 76% of consumers said they were likely going to use telehealth going forward.
Not All Virtual Care Technologies and Tools are Created Equal
While the majority of practices rushed to offer virtual care during the height of the pandemic, many tools implemented and used were not always tightly integrated with existing electronic health records (EHR) or other commonly used applications within the practice, which increased administrative burdens on staff at a time when they were busier than ever.
Since patients have now become accustomed to the convenience of virtual care, practices must take a step back and determine how they can most effectively deliver these types of services in the future.
To make virtual care a long-term reality, and competitive advantage, practices must think far beyond simply having a patient portal, text reminders and a video appointment option. Virtual care plays a role in all stages of the patient care continuum – from the minute a patient first contacts the practice to well beyond their appointment. To succeed with virtual care, consider these four key perspectives:
Offering online scheduling makes it easy and convenient for patients to choose office location, date and time for appointments, and cuts down on the time your staff has to work the phones. Tools also can be used by staff to reach out to patients, to remind them of appointments, or share important preventative or chronic care management information to select groups, such as those who are obese, have diabetes or cardiac disease.
Before appointments, make it easy for patients to access and electronically submit forms, including new patient information and medical background. By integrating these tools with EHRs, practices can streamline the workflow, minimizing administrative paperwork and reducing errors. This self-serve approach also allows existing patients to update their information, as well as note changes to medication and insurance, so records are continually up-to-date.
Using video and chat capabilities brings a personal touch to each virtual appointment. During the visit, you also have the opportunity to share educational resources with patients interactively or to provide links to credible sources to help them understand their diagnosis, learn more about their treatment and make behavior changes to achieve desired outcomes.
Through online portals or post-appointment messages, you can give patients convenient access to the summary of their visit, important data they need, instructions for care, and enable them to pay for their appointment. Secure messaging solutions, including texts and emails, open up two-way communications between patients and providers, giving patients a chance to ask questions and get answers in a timely manner.
We can expect to hear a lot about virtual care tools, tips and strategies during MPEC20. Excitingly, healthcare leaders have a unique opportunity to reimagine their practices and deliver better services to their patients through virtual care and patient engagement solutions. We look forward to connecting with our customers and the industry at large at the show to discuss how we can further support our healthcare providers and arm them with the tools they need to improve outcomes, streamline workflows and maintain business continuity.
About the Author
Chief Product and Technology Officer at Greenway Health, David Cohen, is passionate about technology solutions that allow practices to thrive. He has more than 20 years of enterprise information technology leadership experience, with the most recent 15 years focused on healthcare. Service is core to David’s philosophy. He is committed to serving as a trusted partner to customers and helping them address the healthcare needs of their patients and communities.