After crossing the one-year mark since the onset of the pandemic there is no question that our healthcare system has undergone transformational change. For the first time in history, consumers stopped visiting their medical provider for fear of their personal health. In return, virtual care was thrusted to the center stage of healthcare delivery as a panacea to enable safe, socially distant care. Telehealth adoption spiked at unprecedented rates, with some providers reporting 175 times the number of consultations via telehealth compared to pre-pandemic visits.
However, the healthcare system was woefully unprepared to deliver virtual care at scale, forcing clinicians to scramble and adopt solutions purpose-built for other use cases (such as Zoom and Facetime) as provider organizations lacked the technology infrastructure to deliver efficient and HIPAA compliant virtual care. In time, healthcare systems dedicated substantial resources to respond to the pandemic including meaningful investments in video-based telehealth platforms. Despite being fraught with challenges, telehealth adoption remains well above pre-pandemic utilization levels.
Now, as society begins the shift to the new normal with an increasing administration of vaccines, it is expected that consumers, providers, and payers alike will remain engaged with virtual care solutions due to the core benefit of convenience. Consumers have appreciated the expanded access to medical care and on-demand flexibility of telehealth, with over half reporting a willingness to use telehealth services post-pandemic. Providers too have enjoyed the greater flexibility and improved care coordination with over 95% reporting a willingness to use telehealth. With this momentum, payers are continuing to incentivize virtual care in order to provide members with higher quality service at a lower cost.
The past year successfully ushered in “Virtual Care 1.0”, the first wave of care innovation that focused on delivering traditional in-person care visits virtually. While convenient, Virtual Care 1.0 inhibits scalability for providers and limits flexibility for the consumer. Though substantial resources have been invested to better leverage telehealth, there is still a long way to go– today only 43% of consumers have adopted video-based telemedicine in 2020. Platforms that require the use of broadband internet or smartphones still exclude a sizeable portion of the population from accessing care. Seniors, as one example, have received inadequate medical care during the pandemic as more than 41% of Medicare members lack access to a computer with high-speed internet. Further, it is estimated that the US will face a shortage of up to 139K physicians by 2033, prompting a need to deliver care that moves beyond the one-to-one provider-to-patient model. While telemedicine has certainly brought convenience, provider scalability and consumer access still remain limited.
Now with a captive audience, it is time to look to the future and harness the power of virtual care to move beyond what was initial progress with Virtual Care 1.0 – solutions offering convenience, to what I will designate as Virtual Care 2.0 – solutions providing true systemic scalability.
Moving to Virtual Care 2.0
While 2020 incited widespread adoption of video-based consultations, the healthcare ecosystem is now presented with a new mandate of delivering virtual care at scale. Fortunately, a host of digital health solutions have emerged with the proposition of expanding platform functionality, broadening use cases, and enabling care delivery across new sites of care.
- Expanded Platform Functionality
New digital health solutions are expanding the core functionality of telehealth platforms to expand beyond the confines of one-to-one video-chatting and improve provider efficiency. Underlying technology advancements are already being adopted to enable provider scalability. Companies like PathAI and Olive are leveraging artificial intelligence and natural language processing tools to provide triage, diagnostic support, and workflow process improvements so providers can focus their time on consumer care rather than administrative paperwork.
Several solutions have also emerged with the aim of expanding telehealth’s video-chatting functionality to enable omni-channel communication across asynchronous text, AI-enabled chat, and audio. Such platform enhancements will also satiate consumer’s interest in multi-modal communication and also enable physicians to expand from a one-to-one to a one-to-many model without increases in time or cost. 98point6 is an examples of a company that are building text-first virtual care delivery platforms, allowing consumers to directly communicate with providers through asynchronous messaging. As 66% of consumers were equally or more satisfied with their text-based telemedicine communication vs. in-person interactions, such solutions allow consumers to receive care on their time. Text-based models also break down access barriers, particularly for vulnerable Medicaid populations that may lack video-chatting capabilities.
- Broadening Clinical Use Cases
Second, the use cases of telemedicine are expanding beyond common primary care conditions. Advances in remote monitoring and at-home diagnostic testing are allowing providers to deliver virtual care to patients with more complex and chronic conditions. Companies like UDoTest offer at-home diagnostics for 100+ diseases, such as colon screening and pap smears, that now enables telehealth platforms to scale and provide care for millions of Americans suffering from specialty conditions.
Moreover, emerging digital health companies are building disease-specific telehealth platforms to address higher acuity conditions. For example, companies like NOCD and Equip Health are demonstrating strong outcomes in tackling severe mental health illnesses as consumers can better identify triggers in their own environment rather than from the four walls of a provider’s office. Other companies like Oshi Health and Vivante Health are utilizing telemedicine for gastrointestinal specialty care to connect consumers with multidisciplinary team involving GI specialists, dieticians, and health coaches. By advancing diagnostic and monitoring technology, telemedicine can rapidly scale and become part of a consumer’s entire health journey from primary care needs to specialty care.
- Expanding Sites of Care
Throughout Covid-19, virtual care was primarily accessed by consumers from their homes for urgent care needs due to social distancing mandates. Emerging from the pandemic, digital health solutions can break down walls to deliver preventive and proactive care by meeting consumers where they are – at grocery stores, gyms, community centers, faith-based institutions, and homeless shelters. By integrating medical care into communities, virtual care can also help bridge the digital divide and overcome access barriers for hard-to-reach populations. Companies like Higi and Advinow Medical are leveraging AI technology and augmented reality so patients can self-measure vitals at a medical kiosk located at retail stores, pharmacies, or urgent care clinics. Such models will be critical for closing health equity gaps for hard-to-reach populations by providing consumers with on-demand access to clinical-grade diagnostics and evidence-based health screening tools at the places they already visit.
Other companies such as OnMed are bringing comprehensive primary care to airports, colleges, and hotels through telemedicine exam stations. The company’s stations are equipped with thermal imaging to read body temperature and diagnose infections, while also leveraging high-definition video and audio for virtual visits. The kiosk is equipped to dispense prescribed medications to truly provide consumers with a one-stop comprehensive experience.
There is no doubt that 2020 was transformational for virtual care as expanded convenience and access were critical to address the challenges presented by Covid-19. While traditional telehealth solutions allowed society to shift basic healthcare online, such models will need to expand to meet the growing demand from consumers for flexible, on-demand, and affordable care. As we contain Covid-19, 2021 will be seen as the year that saw the advent of Virtual Care 2.0. The newer virtual care solutions with their expanded platform functionality will be able to address a broader range of use cases, giving healthcare stakeholders the opportunity to rethink where care can and should be delivered.
Editor’s Note: The author is a board observer at NOCD and Higi, which are portfolio companies of 7WireVentures, the author’s employer.