The early ratings are in, and virtual health is a new force in healthcare! Most patients give it two thumbs up, but many health providers face a cliffhanger: Namely, what’s next?  

Patients have clearly embraced virtual care, with physician-patient interactions up 15- to 20-fold1 in some areas due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research shows that nine out of 10 patients say the quality of virtual care is as good as or better than pre-crisis levels. Consumers like its more personalized approach, quicker response times and more convenient access via new communication channels. 

Viewing virtual health strategically 

Having responded to initial patient needs as a result of the pandemic, providers now need a coherent strategy to sustainably integrate virtual care into their core business and clinical delivery models. In other words, they need a second act. This is more of an imperative than ever because patients have had a glimpse of something that addresses their preference for convenience, and once that genie is out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back. As Sci-Fi writer William Gibson said, “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.” Nothing could be truer when it comes to virtual health. Understanding where and how to apply it with the greatest impact will be the key to making it work in the longer term. 

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Our research indicates that challenges to adoption in the pre-COVID universe included poor patient and provider experience with the platforms, the lack of integration into provider workflows, and concerns about data securityWhile COVID-19’s urgency has overcome some of these barriers, providers still need to fully integrate virtual health into their care and business models to avoid missing a valuable opportunity to create a more patient-centered experience. 

To use virtual health effectively, providers should integrate it with redesigned care models that focus on consumer preferences, capabilities and needs. A differentiated patient experience will drive competitive advantages, broaden reach into the home, and deliver lower costs and higher quality. We need to treat virtual health not as an added convenience, but as a new beginning. Here’s why: 

  1. The increased need for behavioral health. Overall, 13% of physician-patient interactions in April of 2020 occurred virtually, with nearly 35% of these being behavioral-health related. These interactions dropped by half in June but are likely to see persistent rates well above pre-COVID levels.2 Behavioral health has grown substantially, exceeding 50% of virtual claims volumes this year. Our research shows that of those who said they have not addressed their behavioral health condition before COVID, 72% now say they would be open to trying virtual health to address their issue. Specific specialties are moving more permanently in the direction of virtualizing their services to a greater degree, including oncology and obstetrics. This shift has major top- and bottom-line implications to consider.
  2. The business model must evolve. Though virtual visits will receive rate parity with in-office appointments in the near term, providers focused on hospital outpatient departments (HOPD) may still see reduced revenue due to the loss of the facility fee. Recent moves by large payers to reinstate copays for these visits could also push some consumers away from engaging in situations where a virtual visit was an option. In addition, virtual visits often lead to less testing and fewer in-office procedures, further affecting revenue for all providers. Conversely, while some virtual care will replace in-office visits (particularly in the near term), our research identifies several scenarios where consumers could choose additional virtual care services during periods when they would normally receive no care at all.3
  3. A new paradigm for network models. Care delivery models themselves must evolve by incorporating virtual health to make a positive business impact and improve the patient/provider experience. Providers should re-evaluate legacy operating models to target consumer preferences in a variety of environments, potentially delivering a substantial payoff in patient satisfaction and outcomes. But first, they need to make virtual care a core element of their value propositions.
  4. Partnering for success. We already see virtual health initiatives spawning new business partnerships among traditional and non-traditional providers, payers and technology companies. Virtual care enables providers to explore new or expanded partnerships to deliver expertise and capacity and tap into potential new reimbursement streams. The increased number of virtual interactions it creates will drive the need for new capabilities, which in turn will give rise to new entrants in the health ecosystem. For example, few providers will have the capabilities to deliver at-home comprehensive care without technology and services ecosystem partners that provide device set-up and user training services, health interpreters, and other assistance.
      Making virtual health integration happen 

      For most providers, the next step is figuring out how to integrate virtual functions seamlessly into their overall health system operations. Many will approach it in three phases, such as: 

      • Phase one: Assess the implementation of virtual health capabilities. They need to understand the impact these changes have had on patient and provider satisfaction, revenue and operations beyond the virtual platform itself. They will also benefit from examining their capacity needs to determine whether they should expand or reconfigure care teams to support the shift to virtual care, using industry maturity models and benchmarks. 
      • Phase two: Define their consumer experience growth strategies to drive differentiation and target the preferences of key consumer segments. They need to balance the implications of shifting from physical to virtual care in terms of reimbursements and physical space requirements and determine the degree of risk they’re taking on in terms of the cost of caring for the populations they serve.  
      • Phase three: Design their enhanced care models in detail. I believe incorporating the virtual elements seamlessly into this new operating model will require willingness and commitment across all stakeholders, which mandates strong communications and incentives. Likewise, it might be necessary to identify physician satisfaction drivers and redefine their performance incentives to align them with the demands of more blended care models.  

      2021 goals: Build on consumer enthusiasm 

      The need to define consumer-centered care model strategies with virtual care as a core element will require providers to understand target consumer preferences like never before. Let’s face it: virtual health is here to stay, and we must build on the newfound adoption of its potential. The ultimate value of virtual health in healthcare’s new future requires providers to advance these capabilities in an integrated fashion. My advice: don’t relegate virtual health to some one-off silo, set aside from the system’s core services. Instead, make it a star!  

      1 https://healthblog.uofmhealth.org/health-management/caring-at-a-distance-telehealth-and-covid-19-pandemic

      2 https://www.fairhealth.org/states-by-the-numbers/telehealth

      3 Accenture Research: Based on % of consumers with desire to have virtual visits (Accenture), the % of visits that are applicable for virtual settings (CDC), and physician adoption (TBD); Note: pre-COVID telehealth use = 1 in 20 (Accenture)

      Scott Cullen

      Managing Director – Consulting, Health Provider Lead, North America

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