Virtual Care Likely to Become a Staple of Healthcare

“Remote patient management can save money and improve the quality of the experience for the patient,” says Huntzinger Advisor Greg Walton.

The COVID-19 pandemic gave way to the rapid, almost frantic, rise in the use of various forms of virtual health services. The rapid shift borne of crisis found consumers and clinicians to see the positive attributes of telemedicine.

While the pandemic still will ravage the country for months, virtual care is likely to become a staple of healthcare in the future, contends Greg Walton, a Huntzinger Advisor and former CIO. Acceptance of the technology has been long in coming, the use of which has languished because of lack of reimbursement, reluctance among providers, licensure issues and the lack of standards.

“COVID has awakened us to remote diagnosis and delivery of certain kinds of care,” Walton said. “It really is medicine – you’re just putting a prefix in front of it. Down the road, it won’t be ‘new’ any longer – there will be times to use it and times to use (in-person visits). We’re going to figure it out over the next 10 to 20 years. The divisions will blur even more.”

The use of technology to deliver virtual care makes sense to facilitate quick encounters and to enable care coordination. For example, in his role as CIO at El Camino Hospital, Walton implemented a teleconsultation solution that linked the Mountain View, Calif., facility with skilled nursing facilities to which patients were being transferred. The linkage enabled providers at both ends to discuss patient care, better equipping caregivers at SNFs to provide better care and head off preventable readmissions.

Now, with the pandemic, technology has helped providers connect to patients, while avoiding non-essential personal contact. For example, something as simple as texting enables communication between providers and patients, Walton said.

Beyond that, virtual care can help providers engage with patients and improve their experience. Walton worked with a startup that used technology to enable regular communication with chronically ill patients to make sure they had basic essentials, such as food in their refrigerators and necessary medications, as well as checking on their health. There is rising awareness of such social determinants of health on patient wellness and its affect on the trajectory of their health, he noted. “The reality is that when you pay attention to a patient, you can change their behavior. Remote patient management can save money and improve the quality of the experience for the patient; it helps raise the frequency of the relationship, and it can expand our reach, especially into impoverished areas.”

Organizations need a longer-term vision to incorporate telemedicine services, Walton said. It’s important to determine how the technology can help keep a provider’s clinical business thriving and then see how the use of the technology can help differentiate the provider from competitors.

Although the rush to address the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed payers to reimburse for virtual care services, and previous restrictions about licensure were temporarily waived to deal with the crisis, barriers still exist. These issues will need to be fully resolved after the crisis passes, and standards for telemedicine will need to be settled upon.

Healthcare organizations also should remain open to other uses of technology that reduce the need for in-person care – for example, remote intensive care units, with patients monitored by clinicians in other locations, multiply the number of critically ill patients who can receive care from specialists. “Technology opens up a whole spectrum of opportunities, Walton noted.

Providers need to recognize the shift to remote care and how it plays into current expectations of patients, he concluded. “Technology has just accelerated the global entry into the convenience economy, and it’s not unique to healthcare. Telemedicine is the equivalence of that entrance. Provider organizations will have to figure out how to manage that strategy and how to coexist in that ecosystem that’s more effective for the patient. Convenience in healthcare is going to be the norm. With the pandemic, providers got their baptism by fire – now they can rethink and strategize around it, when they get past the crisis and they’re not in scramble mode.”