By Hill Ferguson

The numbers are astonishing: The use of telehealth services in the U.S. has grown from 11% of consumers in 2019 to 46% in 2020. But telemedicine was not Plan A for many of these patients. They adopted it because of the difficulty of face-to-face physician visits during the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Telemedicine can do far more than suffice during an emergency. When virtual care becomes the catalyst for integrated care—and solves problems that have long plagued our current healthcare system—consumers will want a “virtual-first” model of healthcare delivery.

Today, telehealth is largely a matter of convenience—which in and of itself has great value in improving access and lowering costs. But telehealth will prove, in the coming months and years, that it will deliver better primary care to larger numbers of patients—and do so more efficiently than our current brick-and-mortar system. Here’s how:

Expanding access and reducing wait times

Three years ago, in a survey of 15 U.S. cities conducted by national physician search firm Merritt Hawkins, researchers found the average patient waited more than 29 days to see a family medicine practitioner, an increase of about 50% from just two years before. Wait times can be months for behavioral health specialists in some parts of the country.

The pandemic has worsened a situation that was already bad, and telemedicine is stepping up by offering 24-hour-a-day, immediate access to primary care physicians, emergency doctors, behavioral health specialists, and dedicated care teams—regardless of a patient’s location.

Consumers will not want to go back to the old way.

Continuity of care

Many underserved patients bounce from one healthcare provider to another, which means in-person care can seem impersonal.

Kaiser Family Foundation found last year that 45% of 18- to 29-year-olds and 28% of 30- to 49-year-olds did not have an established relationship with a primary care physician. This is a problem our healthcare system desperately needs to solve, as studies show continuity of care helps improve patient outcomes and satisfaction, boost adherence to medical regimens, and decrease the use of hospital services.

An effective virtual-first experience establishes a relationship between patients and their primary care providers—a model that offers many people their first sense of continuity in healthcare. Patients not only have access to healthcare providers around the clock, but many have the option to stick with a physician they trust.

Providing integrated care

Patients see primary care physicians and specialists, visit imaging centers and pharmacies and seek treatment for both acute episodes and chronic conditions. In our current system, all of this translates to driving around town—often with printed medical histories in hand—waiting in line and hoping that information is not lost between one physician and the next.

Complex care routines are most often coordinated and integrated by human beings—the patient or her caregiver. Primary care physicians, always under pressure to optimize their operations, want better integration as well.

Virtual care brings together these disparate experiences—and providers with various specialties—onto a single platform, integrating urgent care, behavioral health, wellness and preventive care, and chronic condition management. This means no gaps in the flow of information, no drives across town, and no waiting in line.

Making patient records portable

As patients go from their primary care physician to a specialist to a pharmacy, information is meant to travel with them. But in today’s system, it often does not. This means tests and other procedures are duplicated, resources are wasted and patients too often feel like there’s no one steering the ship.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In a virtual-first model, patients have access to the kind of information we have come to expect from every other industry but, somehow, still can’t expect from healthcare organizations.

Patients often need to be their own advocates, and information helps us advocate effectively. We can do so when we dispute a credit card charge or point out a billing discrepancy when renting a car. We should be able to do the same when it comes to advocating for something far more important: our medical care.

Bringing transparency to billing

Pre-negotiated rates with payers—a feature of the virtual-first delivery model—mean price transparency for patients and no surprise medical bills coming months later. Under the traditional fee-for-service model, patients see their healthcare provider in person with the symptoms of a sinus infection—but are later billed for a variety of other issues.

Consumers won’t stand for unexpected costs when shopping at Amazon or Walmart, and they shouldn’t have to accept them in healthcare.

Bottom line: We have seen a steep spike in the use of telemedicine platforms in recent months, but some believe the numbers could begin trending the other way once more medical clinics open their doors again.

The steep adoption of telemedicine doesn’t have to reverse course. Virtual-first healthcare offers a better experience than the brick-and-mortar system we have today, and it will continue to attract patients. I saw something similar happen during my years in the banking industry, as new platforms emerged that helped consumers take charge of their own finances; it forced brick-and-mortar institutions to rethink the experiences they offered customers and deepen their engagement.

This will happen in the healthcare industry, too. Telemedicine will set a new standard for the level of integration, continuity, and transparency that the healthcare system offers patients. This new experience will raise the bar for care everywhere.

Consumers will demand a virtual-first care plan when telemedicine solves problems that have bedeviled the brick-and-mortar system for years. It’s up to telehealth providers to offer them this experience.

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