Numerous challenges still remain before that can happen, however. Among the most paramount is maintaining the quality of the patient experience. For instance, some virtual healthcare services don’t differentiate between the severity of cases, prioritizing requests as they come instead of based on urgency. A consultation for a rash is treated exactly the same way as one for chest pains and shortness of breath.
As more artificial intelligence, machine learning, and language processing software is deployed to help decipher such issues, Matthew Kull, chief information officer at the Cleveland Clinic, cautions that the digital experience needs to be seamless and consistent, or else it could create more confusion for patients than the physical experience. “The technology has to be developed with the patient experience in mind,” says Kull. “It’s important not to dilute the human connection as care migrates to virtual platforms.”
Initial studies by the Mayo Clinic and others suggest that, so far, patients are more satisfied with virtual healthcare visits than regular office visits. Data from one study, for instance, found that patients felt they had received more attention, clearer communication, and were more involved in decision-making. “To the patient, virtual healthcare feels more like a relationship than a transaction,” says One Medical’s Rubin.
One leak of a patient’s medical records or other privacy breach could change that sentiment in a hurry. Indeed, laws governing patient information in a virtual context are still a bit murky—and, says Kull, they can get murkier as new, nontraditional companies enter the healthcare field. It isn’t clear, for instance, who is responsible for the overall patient journey: the insurance provider, physician, or virtual healthcare company. Moreover, does a technology company or other nonlicensed entity connecting a patient and a physician have the same level of responsibility over data as a licensed medical provider? Or are they just a middleman and not subject to the same regulations?
Kull says it isn’t implausible to imagine a future where a large technology company offers users primary care services. Or perhaps a social network could gamify a way to get users to share medical information and then sell it to third parties. Think of it like a “Guess Your Age” game on Facebook, but instead it involves smoking or exercise or some other way to glean healthcare habits. “In that sense, interactions become a product to create revenue,” says Kull.
As it relates to talent, Korn Ferry’s Gnatt says healthcare organizations that have proactively built teams and systems to handle virtual programs and had payer models in place for reimbursement found themselves ahead of the game during their response to COVID-19.
The lower barriers to entry are part of the reason why many experts believe regulations that were lifted to increase access to care during the most intense period of the pandemic will ultimately be rolled back. Already there is talk among insurers about ending reimbursements for physicians and reinstating copays for patients for virtual visits, which would clearly dampen enthusiasm among both sides. Similarly, state licensure requirements are likely to be reapplied as well.
Still, as Teladoc Health’s Nadler says, COVID moved virtual healthcare from the margins to the mainstream. “Adoption is still significantly above where it would be normally, and while it will likely come down from the peak of the virus, it will remain much higher than it would have been without the virus,” he says.
Put another way, virtual healthcare is finally a medical reality.
For more information, contact: Doug Greenberg at email@example.com, Shelly Carolan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Josh Gnatt at email@example.com.