Virtual care is here to stay; here’s what the means for patients, employers, and benefit sponsors
The COVID-19 pandemic served to expedite what was already a growing field within consumer healthcare: virtual access to your doctor. Governing bodies like the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have boosted the availability of virtual care through lifting prior restrictions and incentivizing services–including $55 million in 2022 to increase virtual care access for underserved communities.
And the data shows that virtual care is here to stay. Consumers have gone from 11% to 76% interested in leveraging telehealth services moving forward. A recent provider survey found that 72% are using virtual appointments for chronic care, 64% for prescription refills, and 39% for COVID-19 screenings.
An evolution in care for the underserved
Perhaps the most promising element in virtual care’s expansion is its ability to meet large population segments that are historically underserved, often due to a combination of geographic, financial, and other socioeconomic factors. Especially in low-income areas or regions with limited infrastructure, streamlined access to a doctor using a phone or personal computer helps link providers and specialists with those in need of care.
2021 research from Southern California published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that Latino and low-income patients had the largest percentage increase in use of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The use of virtual care during the pandemic shows us it is a potentially promising way to reduce health care disparities even after the pandemic ends,” said Lei Qian, PhD, a research scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research & Evaluation.
She adds, “Given the growing familiarity with new telehealth technologies, even as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, patients likely will continue to pursue telehealth services beyond pre-pandemic levels.”
The $55 million in funding awarded by the HHS adds to the $7.3 billion in funding by the American Rescue Plan, which has supported more than 1,400 community health centers across the country for at-risk communities amid COVID-19.
Spending in the virtual care space
If you’re wondering just how ubiquitous virtual healthcare solutions have become, consider that 2021 estimates suggest there are between 10,000 and 20,000 mental health apps on the market. In 2019 alone, analysts estimated the digital health and wellness service market was worth more than $84 billion. Since the pandemic, that valuation could increase by up to 28.5 percent by 2026.
But the explosive growth in virtual care is about more than just money spent, but money saved. A study by the Nemours Children’s Health System found that patients and family members saved an average of $50 in travel costs and recouped just under an hour in time by using telehealth technology for sports medicine appointments. 99% of the families involved said they would recommend a telehealth approach to others in need of sports physicals. These telehealth appointments also saved the health system $24 per patient.
Other specialties are seeing similar results. Haywood Brown, the president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told the Wall Street Journal that telehealth is a priority for the organization because “it improves the quality of care and reduces health-care costs.”
And virtual home health services are experiencing a surge in development thanks to remote monitoring and patient engagement tools. These include things as simple as electronic blood pressure cuffs that link directly to a patient’s electronic medical record (EMR) to physical therapy tools for elderly populations and home medication administration for infusible and injectable drugs.
A report from McKinsey & Company found that approximately $250 billion of all Medicare, Medicaid, and commercial OP, office, and home health spend could potentially be “virtualized.” Additionally, 20 percent of ER visits could be avoided via virtual urgent care, and 35 percent of regular home health attendant services could be virtualized.
The development of CareAnywhere
Even as the pandemic has waned, Everside’s onsite providers continue to utilize telehealth to connect with patients and both treat acute conditions and provide counseling for patients with chronic care needs.
The demand for improved access to telehealth played a major role in the development of CareAnywhere, a virtual primary care solution that aims to streamline the virtual care journey and replicate as close as possible the in-person experience of a health center visit. CareAnywhere by Everside is staffed by a dedicated team of providers delivering virtual care to members who don’t have access to an onsite health center. In addition to meeting with the same provider for every visit, a major component that other telehealth solutions lack is RN-led navigation–telehealth nurses who ensure care is coordinated and patients are supported during care navigation.
The result is a quality patient experience that expands the scope of primary healthcare for workers who are geographically remote or work unorthodox hours–often those who neglect or postpone vital preventive care in the first place.
What’s next for virtual care?
Everside’s roadmap looks much like the roadmap of virtual care’s forward thinkers: improved remote patient monitoring functionality, at-home lab and vitals collection, and ongoing optimizations that emphasize a seamless, intuitive patient experience. Key progressions in tech will advance quickly as specialty care like cardiology and oncology leverage the benefits of virtual care in prevention and treatment, including RN-assisted home visits, consumer-friendly tools that integrate with clinic records, and improved workflow design for providers and care teams.
As virtual care continues to expand, those most at risk of neglected or missed healthcare can engage with a health benefit that keeps them happier and healthier, even when a 9-to-5 brick-and-mortar clinic feels unreachable.