Mar 16 2022

The 2022 Outlook for Virtual Care

From mergers and acquisitions to uncertainty on Capitol Hill, the healthcare industry is keeping a close eye on the virtual care landscape.

The virtual care landscape has seen major transformations over the past few years, with pandemic-linked federal telemedicine waivers and the takeoff of video visits.

Now, many traditional healthcare providers have reached a point of comfort with telemedicine as the industry adjusts to evolving patient demands, workflow expectations and, in certain cases, limited resources. Next, organizations will look at how to fully integrate virtual care into new care modalities.

Rather than asking what financial benefits virtual care could provide an organization, providers must understand that virtual care is not a strategy in and of itself. Virtual care is an enabler of an organizational strategy. To crystalize that organizational strategy, providers can explore whether they’re looking to access new markets, reduce operating costs, achieve a better customer experience or improve their approaches to population health.

So, what will virtual care look like for the rest of this year and beyond? Program success will be less reliant on the technology than on organizational and human factors, the business operating model, operational and clinical workflows, and policies and procedures. Here’s a peek at virtual care’s journey in 2022 and beyond.

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Payers, Startups, Retail and Tech Giants

As patients expect more personalized care and healthcare organizations aim to deliver a connected continuum of care, a hybrid model with a virtual-first touchpoint will be a standard approach sought by payers, providers and digital health companies.

“There used to be this notion that telehealth is transactional; it's for things like urgent care, where I don’t need to know who the person on the other end of the call or the screen is, I just have a specific, short need to get help,” Sam Holliday, CEO of virtual-first gastrointestinal specialty care provider Oshi Health, told HealthTech in December. “I think the biggest shift that’s occurred is people realize you can actually do relationship-based ongoing care through telehealth. That shift now has made consumers more comfortable with telehealth, providers are more comfortable, and it’s created a whole set of companies that are redesigning their care, saying it should all be telehealth first for the things where that’s appropriate.”

The organizations that will find success are the ones that are able to frictionlessly move patients through the right modality of care — for example, starting with a video visit but then escalating to an in-person visit when it’s clear that’s what the patient needs.

EXPLORE: Emerging use cases and evolving compliance concerns for Zoom.

Payers have kept a finger on the pulse of virtual care for years now. In 2019, UnitedHealth Group’s Optum division acquired remote patient monitoring startup Vivify. And last year, payers began rolling out virtual-first health plans in earnest, from Oscar Insurance’s virtual primary care to UnitedHealth Group’s NavigateNOW plan. Anthem began expanding its virtual care offerings earlier this year.   

Over the past two years, telehealth companies such as Teladoc Health Doctor on Demand and Amwell have each expanded their reach in digital health through mergers and acquisitions. Tech and retail giants have also entered the arena in a major way, with Aetna Virtual Primary Care through CVS Health; Walmart’s acquisition of telehealth company MeMD; and the nationwide launch of Amazon’s telehealth service, Amazon Care.

These companies, along with payers, are bringing new care models to the marketplace at a much faster pace than traditional providers. For those providers, while the evolving landscape for virtual care may seem daunting, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a zero-sum game.

Traditional providers may find opportunities to locally partner with companies and build out a robust hybrid care model to ensure their network integrity. For example, Cleveland Clinic and Amwell partnered to launch a digital health offering called The Clinic by Cleveland Clinic, where patients can access virtual care.

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All Eyes on Capitol Hill for Telehealth Policy

Federal telehealth waivers helped foster the rapid adoption of programs during the pandemic. But when the public health emergency declaration expires, what will happen to that expanded access to telehealth? The healthcare industry is warily eyeing the telehealth cliff.

Because of this uncertainty, it’s difficult for many healthcare organizations to strategically plan what to invest in with confidence.

Ideally, an act of Congress could quell the uncertainty. Two senators introduced the Telehealth Extension and Evaluation Act in February to ensure extended access for a limited amount of time after the public health emergency ends. There is some optimism that this precarious landscape could be addressed legislatively, especially with the uptick in telehealth lobbying. All eyes are now on the recent omnibus spending package that includes an extension of some of these protections at least five months beyond the end of the PHE.

Trends in Health at Home

Care will continue to move beyond hospital walls as healthcare organizations expand high-level acute care to patients’ homes. Pioneered by Johns Hopkins Medicine, the “hospital at home” model is expanding across the country, especially as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issues waivers for more hospitals to offer the service

The healthcare industry will see a continued trend toward more acute care at home, but that will require strong workflows for transitioning into in-person care and escalating when necessary. Such movement will eventually lead to less investment in larger hospital buildings and a trend toward the microhospital or the ambulatory intensive care unit. There will be increased remote integration of specialists, whether through augmented and virtual reality or through traditional synchronous video coupled with diagnostic peripherals. In the home, there will be more integration with consumer-based applications, so a drive for better interoperability will be key.

That is also why addressing digital health inequity must be top of mind. Digital health access is not limited to inadequate infrastructure; digital literacy and trust are also challenges that must be solved in culturally relevant and specific ways. Are staffers adequately trained to guide a patient who is unfamiliar with downloading an app? Are there multilingual options? Does a patient prefer audio-only communication instead of video? Organizations can and should look to their community needs assessments to identify where they should be prioritizing efforts and building them into their strategies.

It is imperative that infrastructure challenges are addressed within the next two to three years. Whether it’s through satellite technology or putting down more broadband pipes, high-speed internet access to all parts of the country must come to fruition.

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


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