Mar 11 2021

The Value of Virtual Care: The Advantages of Telemedicine

Telehealth initiatives expanded rapidly to meet pandemic needs. But what happens to remote care as organizations navigate a new road to normalcy?

Virtual care became a valuable resource in the fight to deliver efficient and effective healthcare services even as the first wave of COVID-19 tore across the country. One year later, telehealth initiatives have become common features of care infrastructure nationwide.

But what happens next? With ongoing vaccination efforts now offering a slow and steady solution to pandemic pressures, what role does virtual care play? Is remote healthcare here to stay, or are the days numbered for connected care initiatives?

How Telehealth Allows for Diverse Care Options

According to the American Medical Association, there’s little doubt that virtual care will remain in some form even after crisis conditions ease. Although approximately 50 percent of healthcare providers deployed virtual health services for the first time during this pandemic, the likely future of these frameworks is optimization, not obsolescence.

That projection stems in part from the opportunity presented by crisis-driven care challenges.

“What we found, in being forced to pivot, was that we can better identify which type of visit — in person, telephone or virtual — is best for each patient,” says Steph Willding, CEO of Chicago’s CommunityHealth, the nation’s largest free, volunteer-based healthcare organization. “While you don’t usually think about a free health center being a hub for innovation, 40 percent of our visits are now by video or phone.”

At Tucson Medical Center, virtual healthcare technology innovation started with a new approach to patient visits, says Susan Snedaker, information security officer and interim CIO for TMC HealthCare.

“In our hospital, we had virtual visits within the walls of the building to reduce the need for PPE use,” she says. “With limited supplies and time needed for doctors to put on required PPE — sometimes up to 20 minutes — we found a lot of value in real-time text, video and chat solutions.”

Telemedicine Places Care Where It’s Most Needed

In traditional healthcare settings, space and place are critical. Care facilities need enough space for doctors, patients, administrative staff and equipment, and all the necessary parties must be in the same place at the same time.

From Willding’s perspective, the pandemic offered healthcare enterprises the chance to “rethink space and place for patient-centered care.” CommunityHealth’s approach is to create a hybrid model by establishing telehealth hubs — or “microsites” — throughout Chicago.

“These hubs are colocated in existing community organizations, making them incredibly sustainable,” says Willding. “Patients can come to a site in their own community and receive an assisted medical visit. Medical assistants are onsite to help with vital statistics and basic care, and to set up patients in rooms for virtual visits with an expert.”

CommunityHealth plans to open its first microsite in April, with the goal of opening a new one each quarter.

In practice, solutions like this highlight the need for healthcare agencies to understand where they can make best use of telemedicine’s advantages. For CommunityHealth, creating a hybrid in-person/telemedicine model made the most sense for their client base.

READ MORE: Learn how telehealth supports mental health care in remote and underserved areas.

Remote Care Technology Empowers Patients with Greater Choice

Organizations must also account for the changing nature of the healthcare market at large.

“Thanks to the consumerization of healthcare technologies, the balance of power has shifted,” says Snedaker. “Providers still have a schedule, but they’re effectively on-demand for patients. As a result, both the provider and the patient benefit, and this drives critical mass for adoption.”

In effect, this disconnect between care and location — much like the emerging shift in space and place — creates an opportunity for asynchronous assistance. It’s no longer necessary that patients and providers be in same place at the same time.

Payment policies and regulations are also changing in response to evolving virtual care deployments. For example, in December, The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released its list of covered telehealth services for the COVID-19 pandemic, which significantly expanded providers’ ability to deliver on-demand care without breaking budgets. In effect, the broader coverage allowed them to remain profitable while offering patient-centric services.

Although there’s no guarantee that CMS’ coverage schedule will remain the same as pandemic pressures ease, it represents a significant step forward in the recognition that asynchronous service has the same fundamental value as in-person visits.

Compliance will also play a critical role in the ongoing impact of virtual health services. It makes sense: The more patient data is collected and stored by healthcare agencies on local servers and in the cloud, the more that oversight around data transmission, use and eventual erasure will increase.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has noted that it “will not impose penalties for noncompliance with the regulatory requirements under the HIPAA Rules against covered health care providers in connection with the good faith provision of telehealth during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency.” Even so, that suspension won’t last forever, and healthcare organizations must deploy effective identity, access and security management controls to ensure that, as normalcy returns, risk remains under control.

READ MORE: Learn about healthcare technologies aiding in the fight against COVID-19.

Post-Pandemic Care Reflects the Momentum of Change

For Snedaker, hybrid models form the future of telemedicine.

“We’ll continue to see both telehealth and face-to-face services,” she predicts. “While a lot of people like the convenience of telehealth, they’re missing that connection with providers. Virtual health services will get dialed back to some degree, but they will stay.”

Ultimately, she makes a compelling case for the evolving value of virtual care.

“Never waste a crisis,” she says. “The most impactful thing about this pandemic was breaking through the barriers that kept us from thoughtful technology adoption. Over time, we will end up in a much better place.”

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