The idea of virtual health goes back decades, but in my opinion, when it comes to adoption and implementation of virtual health programs, the time is now. There are several reasons for this. First, technology has finally caught up with our vision for the future. Secondly, consumer expectations are higher, and demands for improved convenience and availability have increased. At the same time, many of the financial, behavioral, and policy barriers that have hindered adoption are starting to crumble.
As the health care sector transitions from a volume-based fee-for-service model to one that rewards value, virtual health could have a significant return on investment. For hospitals, physicians, and other caregivers, virtual health could enhance the ability to improve care, outcomes, convenience, and patient engagement while reducing costs.
Here are three areas where I think virtual health could improve the value of health care:
- Outcomes: Virtual health led to a 15 percent reduction in length of patient stays, and improved the experience of chronically ill patients, and remote monitoring of patients once they leave the hospital can cut readmission rates.1 It is estimated that $7 billion a year (average of $126 per visit) would be saved if annual face-to-face doctor visits moved to virtual visits.2
- Access: There are now about 200 telemedicine networks and 3,500 service sites in the US, according to the American Telemedicine Association. Adoption of virtual health could extend the reach of physicians and other care providers, and improve convenience for patients. Getting into a car and driving to see a doctor can be a burden for patients. Improving convenience and keeping patients out of waiting rooms can translate to a better patient experience.
- Adherence: Virtual health can help improve medication adherence, health tracking, and patient accountability. It also can help patients better understand their treatment plans. Telehealth and remote monitoring can give physicians real-time insight into their patients' health and medical data. For patients with chronic conditions, it can improve disease monitoring and alerts.
So why now? Here are four reasons I think the time has come for virtual health:
- Improved technology: Internet speed and connectivity are light years beyond where they were a few years ago. In addition, most everyone seems to have a smartphone within arm's reach at all times (maybe not always a good thing!). Better technology has helped make telehealth more user-friendly and accessible for patients and providers. More than 90 percent of American adults use the internet,3 which means physicians have the ability to answer non-urgent questions from patients online. In addition, the vendor landscape has broadened significantly, and interoperability continues to improve. Patients, health systems, doctors, and health plans can connect with each other through a variety of devices.
- Evolving state laws: Over the past several years, some state laws have been modified to allow wider use of telehealth. Until recently, for example, some states did not allow providers to write prescriptions after a telehealth visit. Other laws required physicians to meet first with patients in person before telehealth visits were allowed. At least 34 states now have laws that require coverage for telehealth services.4
- More covered services: A growing number of state laws require commercial health plans and Medicaid to cover certain services through telehealth. Medicaid programs in 49 states and the District of Columbia now offer some telehealth coverage.5 A growing number of private health plans now pay for telehealth visits. As of 2016, 74 percent of large employer-sponsored plans had incorporated telehealth into their benefits (up from 48 percent in 2015).6
- Payment parity: Several states have enacted laws that require health plans to put payments for telehealth visits on par with face-to-face visits. At least 23 states and the District of Columbia now require full parity.7 Some states are exploring legislation that would let physicians use telehealth to meet with patients in other states. At least 18 states have enacted a compact streamlining licensing.8
Virtual health is no longer just an idea. To stay relevant, hospitals and health systems should prepare for this future, which seems to have already arrived.
- The Wall Street Journal, 2016
- Pew Research Center, 2018
- Health Data Management, 2017
- Health Affairs, 2016
- Health Affairs, 2016
- Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, 2018