Jul 14 2021

‘A Tricky Balance’: Reassessing Virtual Care Beyond the Pandemic

What should healthcare organizations consider as more of them look to fully integrate digital solutions into their operations?

Widespread virtual care options were deployed amid the COVID-19 pandemic to follow the necessary health protocols for keeping patients and providers safe. But beyond the immediate health crisis, patients have shown increased interest in virtual care solutions.

Between 40 and 60 percent of consumers have expressed interest in a set of broader virtual health solutions — such as digital patient access or a virtual-first health plan that’s less expensive, according to McKinsey’s latest research — and 57 percent of physicians would prefer to continue offering virtual care options.

The healthcare organizations that figure out how to integrate virtual care into their approach rather than simply layering it on top of their traditional systems will be the ones to excel. As they re-evaluate their virtual care strategies, they should consider their priorities as an organization and the needs of their patients, and keep an eye on any future regulations.

Integrating Virtual Care into an Overall Strategy

Healthcare organizations need to take a hard look at how virtual care fits into their overarching plan. Virtual care isn’t, in and of itself, a strategic project; it needs to be integrated within a larger, encompassing approach. For example, for a patient experience–driven strategy, plan to answer a question like, “How can virtual care increase patient satisfaction?”

Operational workflows and policies that made sense for an in-person approach may not make sense when integrating a virtual strategy. Review these protocols and ask, “Do these still make sense? Can these policies be streamlined? If not, how do I integrate virtual care into those policies or procedures so that it has the least impact on the patient?”

There’s also a tricky balance between managing in-person patients and virtual patients. If there isn’t a dedicated virtual team, which patient gets served first: the one in the physical waiting room or the one logging on to the patient portal for a video visit? If the in-person patient is accommodated first, the virtual patient could end up logging off and seeking care elsewhere.

DISCOVER: How telehealth improves patient-centered care.

Then, there’s the issue of disparate solutions throughout the organization. The federal waiver that helped healthcare providers quickly implement virtual care during the pandemic without regard to HIPAA compliance was really a double-edged sword. Though it allowed providers to connect with patients using popular applications such as FaceTime, it also meant opening up a single practice to a patchwork of approaches. That led to wildly disparate customer and provider experiences as well, and a loss of insight into the data around the care itself. Using different platforms also came with vastly different workflows, so when the time arrived to move to a HIPAA-compliant solution, some providers were hesitant because they were comfortable with how they had been working.

For organizations that are integrated delivery networks, the experience that a consumer has going to a primary care practice should be the same as the cardiology practice, the urgent care practice, the hospital outpatient departments — just seamless throughout. The workflow and communication have to be tight.

For example, if a patient has a virtual visit but needs in-person testing, how do you ensure they can get tested at the most convenient physical location, without a long wait and with all the data reaching that site immediately? Integrating virtual care into the in-person care environment requires a thoughtful patient experience process that is satisfying and second to none, because there’s nothing a patient wants less than to wait.

That means interoperability among systems is critical. When data flows more easily, the practices that can layer APIs on top of electronic medical records systems that offer adaptive capabilities are going to take off.

As the healthcare industry continues to move toward value-based care, those organizations that do it now, and do it right, are going to be the winners. Virtual care is going to play a major part in that change. This genie is not going back in the bottle.

MORE FROM HEALTHTECH: What’s next for telehealth?

Regulatory Horizons for Virtual Care

The healthcare industry saw the benefit of waiving a lot of rules around telehealth during the pandemic. With the reintroduction of the CONNECT for Health Act of 2021 in April, Congress is looking to expand telehealth coverage beyond the pandemic. The removal of originating site restrictions from Medicare on a permanent basis would be a game changer.

One of the biggest barriers to widespread adoption has been the lack of standardized reimbursement policies. Those restrictions have prevented widespread use of telemedicine in the past.

As goes Medicare, so go the payers. When Medicare says, “Yes, these things will all be reimbursable, having just waived all of these requirements during the pandemic,” that will permeate through the private-payer industry.

This article is part of HealthTech’s MonITor blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using #WellnessIT.

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