Nov 11 2020

CHIME20: What Does the Future Hold for Virtual Care?

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of virtual care across the industry; however, questions remain about its long-term role in the care delivery ecosystem.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. this March, healthcare systems implemented virtual care solutions at record speed — in many cases, condensing what would normally be a multiyear project into a matter of weeks.

As pandemic fatigue continues to spread across the country, however, an increasing number of people are beginning to seek in-person care again. Bob Schwyn, the director and co-lead for informatics and technology practice at The Chartis Group, shared at the CHIME20: Digital Recharge conference this week that virtual care visits are now down to roughly 15 percent nationwide from a peak of over 50 percent in April.

“Unfortunately, what’s happened over the last number of months, as the pandemic has maybe become more of a way of life, is organizations have really shifted,” said Schwyn. “We’ve seen a fairly significant plunge in what we thought was going to be a real catalyst in pushing us further into this digital arena.”

This raises the question: What long-term role will virtual care play in the care delivery ecosystem once the pandemic passes?

Experts at the virtual conference explored just how this care delivery method was saving resources and improving the patient experience before the pandemic — and how it might continue to help clinicians keep up with new patient inflow in the future.

Lay Out a Roadmap to Ensure Patient and Caregiver Needs Are Met

The majority of organizations that are already running a successful and effective virtual care program, Schwyn said, are really looking at the continuum of care and not treating their program as a temporary solution.

“Virtual is the way of the future, not just a necessity for the pandemic,” he said. “The areas of focus should really be to build a sustainable model by understanding where that future is.”

One organization that’s taken such an approach is Franciscan Health. Charles Wagner, senior vice president and CIO for the organization, shared that Franciscan was, in fact, well positioned for their COVID response due to their methodical approach to implementing their virtual care model back in 2018.

“We went through and prioritized those strategies and those functions that would provide the most impact for our patients,” said Wagner. “We ended up with about six key strategic focus areas, and the result of that work helped us to lay out a roadmap.”

Wagner and his team continue to home in on those key strategic focus areas even now, using them to measure things like new patient volume brought to Franciscan or the number of remote patient monitoring devices deployed each quarter. This has helped the team to get continued investments and buy-in that they need to expand the program. So far, Wagner added, the results are paying off.

“A virtual-first strategy is key to our success,” he said, “and our ability to deliver better care at a more affordable cost.”

Telehealth Integration and Interoperability Prove Vital

One frustration that’s commonly emerged around this massive adoption of virtual care is the need for patients and providers to access multiple platforms.

Daniel Eisenman, a senior director for sales engineering at Amwell, called out this problem at CHIME20, noting that ease of use is ultimately what will determine whether a patient has a successful virtual visit or not. Interoperability of healthcare systems, he added, is where IT teams should focus their efforts.

“What really becomes the most important factor for improving ease of use comes down to integration,” he said. “For physicians, being able to start a visit directly from the patient’s chart is a big benefit — they’re not having to log in to multiple systems, remember multiple names and passwords.”

“It’s a similar story for patients,” Eisenman added. “It can be as simple as the flip of a switch to turn on visits within the patient portal.”

Eisenman explained how telemedicine visits that start within the electronic health record can be the key to enabling better virtual care visits moving forward. This type of integration isn’t far-fetched either; Intermountain Healthcare had already begun such a project, to reduce the number of its systems for both patients and caregivers well before the pandemic.

“We identified that there was a need to create something that was more intuitive, seamless and integrated than a set of stand-alone applications,” Jared Antczak, director of consumer digital solutions at Intermountain, said at CHIME20.

Antczak mentioned that, rather than collecting a set of features and functionality for their new patient-facing application, the team designed the experience in a way that matches the user’s mental model — where one action naturally leads to the next, in an intuitive and easy-to-understand manner.

“While we didn’t design MyHealth+ for COVID-19, what we had created was perfectly suited for a world where social distancing became the norm,” said Antczak.

Keep this page bookmarked for articles from the event. Follow us on Twitter @HealthTechMag as well as the official organization account, @CIOCHIME, and join the conversation using the hashtags #CHIME20 and #CHIME.

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