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Guest Post

Virtual care is the future of healthcare

2020 was the catalyst healthcare needed. Here we discuss how the industry is shifting to a virtual-first model and doubling down on interoperability for the foreseeable future.

Healthcare was forced to take on digital transformation at a breakneck pace in 2020. A year later, many healthcare organizations are still reeling from the rate of change. In response to a need for care continuity while observing shelter-in-place orders, healthcare organizations and patients both reached for digital tools, including virtual care, as a lifeline. By leading with digital engagement first -- often through virtual care -- healthcare organizations established a link to their customers in their homes.

Virtual care was the launchpad needed to empower HCOs to take on the impossible. In the words of Paul King, president and CEO at Stanford Children's Health​, "If you had told us that we had to stand up 80% of our outpatient visits to be virtual in less than a week, I would have told you that would be impossible. Impossible has now been redefined during this era of COVID."

All in all, virtual care has done the following:

  • increased capacity for HCOs struggling under rising patient volumes;
  • provided a revenue stream that would otherwise have run dry and forced clinic closures; and
  • addressed an immediate need for so many institutions amid a crisis while helping to open the eyes of HCOS to change, as virtual care is anything but temporary.

Virtual care is healthcare

Virtual care has become a core component of consumer-clinician engagement and will forever change the way consumers engage in their care. According to the Forrester Analytics "Consumer Technographics U.S. Omnibus Q4 Survey, 2020," 41% of U.S. online adults have had a remote primary care visit, with the rate of adoption nearly doubling since March 2020. Forrester estimates that the virtual care market will reach a potential $43 billion in 2021, with upwards of 440 million virtual ambulatory encounters. On the supply side, more than 50% of practicing physicians plan to make virtual care a permanent part of their care models for patients.

Today, most virtual visits are delivered by health systems and clinics -- not outsourced models -- and support patients for chronic care management and primary care. Large health insurers like Humana and Kaiser Permanente have already responded to this virtual-first primary care shift and launched new product offerings for members.

Healthcare must address inequities to better serve all patients

For many patients, virtual care was out of reach due to lack of connectivity, lack of design for accessibility and lack of support for a diverse population. While a virtual-first engagement model is not new, the sheer volume of net-new patients experiencing this model created a watershed moment that brought many inadequacies to light at once. Without a strong, differentiated digital-first strategy, healthcare institutions will continue to experience customer attrition. The new empowered healthcare consumer will make the shift to alternative healthcare offerings and competitors.

By addressing the needs of the minority, the whole population wins. Improved experiences that remove barriers for some increase the ease of access for all and ultimately drive improvement in population health. These outcomes drive community benefit, with all individuals able to be healthy and contribute at work, to their local community and society at large.

Optimize virtual care now for future success in healthcare

Remember, virtual care is healthcare. Over a decade ago, the market referred to remote banking as "telebanking." Today, using your mobile phone to deposit checks, make transfers and conduct your banking needs remotely is commonplace, and the term was simply replaced by referring to this engagement model as "banking." The same effect will happen for virtual care. As virtual care becomes a core tenet for current and future healthcare delivery, healthcare executives must do the following:

  • Optimize workflows now to lessen the burden on clinicians. Administrative requirements like documentation, lack of interoperability and cluttered workflows lead to dissatisfaction and burnout among clinicians. Virtual care is not a stopgap measure, and the workflow must be optimized just like any other care setting. HCOs must rationalize their technology stack to ensure financial breakeven, as additional offerings are necessary to effectively deliver virtual care visits.
  • Improve CX for future competitive advantage. Patient and member experience have become key to differentiation in healthcare. Virtual care experiences must carry less friction than an in-person appointment for sustained adoption. Use journey mapping to identify pain points for internal and external customers and tackle the touchpoints that carry the highest emotional score to drive sustained engagement. New entrants will continue to flood the healthcare market, and customers will have plenty of options to turn to if you fail them.
  • Tackle accessibility and the digital divide directly. All consumers stand to benefit from virtual care but only if they can use it to the fullest capacity. From enabling assistive technology to offering the ability for consumers to connect over multiple modalities such as phone and secure messaging, consumers have varying degrees of needs and abilities. It is essential to meet consumers where they are and with what they need to reduce friction and ensure that healthcare is available to all.

About the author
Arielle Trzcinski is a principal analyst at Forrester, serving digital business professionals in healthcare. Her research focuses on how healthcare organizations can utilize technology to become more customer-obsessed and engage healthcare customers in new, innovative ways. Her areas of focus include digital health, virtual care, telehealth, telemedicine, patient and member experience, the digital front door, healthcare analytics and value-based care.

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