Virtual care services rapidly deployed and widely used during the COVID-19 pandemic have staying power beyond the immediate health crisis. It’s not just patients who are satisfied with telemedicine — healthcare providers also have touted its benefits.
The COVID-19 HealthCare Coalition’s 2020 Telehealth Impact Study physician survey found that 50 percent of providers strongly agreed with the statement, “Telehealth has improved the timeliness of care for my patients.” And the group’s patient survey found that a majority of patients agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I was very satisfied with the care I received during that visit.”
So, what are the next steps for virtual care beyond the pandemic? From informal caregivers to large employers, experts at the American Telemedicine Association’s 2021 virtual conference shared their perspectives on the benefits of quality training, the need to recognize care that is often unpaid and how businesses can lead the way for digital health benefits.
A Focus on Virtual Care Education
During a session called “Raising the Bar in Quality Telehealth Care Delivery through Education and Certification,” Scott Shipman, the director of clinical innovations and primary care initiatives at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), said it was important to ensure providers have the skills to fully integrate telehealth into their practices.
That way, the notion of what’s virtual and what’s in person — and how they fit together — isn’t a mystery, he said, adding, “Very few have figured out how to really seamlessly tie the two together in a sustainable way. And if we anticipate that telehealth will be a tool that is an important one going forward, I think we need to make sure people have the clinical skills but also the health systems skills to be able to fit the two together.”
Quality education for healthcare providers is key for the longevity of virtual care. “We got one message loud and clear over the last several years, certainly pre-pandemic, and that was that there was a real need for consensus competencies in telehealth to help guide educators in training the next generation of our workforce in telehealth,” Shipman said.
The AAMC released a more recent report on telehealth competencies, which includes issues such as accessibility and equity, legal requirements and patient safety. The American Board of Telehealth offers certification programs, and the University of Virginia’s Karen S. Rheuban Center for Telehealth has accredited online courses.
Kristi Henderson, senior vice president of the Center for Digital Health at Optum Health, also highlighted the importance of training and how the industry was at an “important crossroads” for the future of telehealth.
“If we’re going to ensure really smooth continuity of care, good handoffs and escalations, understanding when virtual care is appropriate and when it’s not for certain levels of care, then we’ve got work to be done for education and training, and that’s across all types of clinical and clinical support roles,” she said.
Deanna Larson, CEO of Avera eCARE, added that as providers and patients emerge from the “Wild West” of telehealth adoption during the pandemic, regulatory requirements and standardized quality need to be understood.
Those foundational pieces can include security considerations, HIPAA compliance and basic technical troubleshooting, such as making sure a patient can hear and see a provider on a given videoconferencing platform.
And though virtual care is here to stay, Larson added that in-person visits won’t disappear, and that these modes of care are complementary to each other. But the infrastructure that exists for brick-and-mortar settings needs to be strengthened for virtual care as well.
Recognizing Informal Caregivers in Healthcare
Though the panel discussion “Skills for Care – What is the Need and What Does Good Care Look Like?” focused on caregiving in the European Union and the U.K., the perspectives shared could still inform the long-term care landscape in the U.S.
According to estimates from the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, more than 1 in 5 Americans served as a caregiver for an adult or child with health or functional needs in 2020. The U.S. also faces a professional caregiver shortage and high turnover rates in the sector, a worrying trend with the growing population of older adults over the next decade.
That’s why it’s important to affirm the much-needed role of informal caregivers, those who are unpaid, who often include family members. Claire Champeix, policy officer for European network Eurocarers, highlighted the need for accessible education and formal recognition of informal caregivers.
And a digital-first strategy has helped in Ireland’s healthcare sector, said Martin Curley, director of Digital Transformation and Open Innovation at Health Service Executive.
Digital Health Benefits Expand for Employees
Large employers have expanded their offerings of digital health benefits, and some 80 percent of them anticipate a larger role for virtual care in general in their health programs in the future, according to Mercer’s 2020 National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans.
Businesses can also move the needle on virtual care when they include it as part of their benefits package, experts shared during the session called “Employers as Catalysts for Telehealth.”
“I liken it to, this is 1999 internet, and we’re at the very nascent stages of very exciting, compelling solutions that can make impact in a good way,” said Jason Parrott, senior manager of global healthcare and well-being strategy at Boeing.
The adoption of such digital benefits shows promise, from text-based health solutions to remote chronic-condition management. “We’re moving away from being reactive to more real-time, near real-time,” Parrott added.
When employers consider a digital health solution as part of their benefits package, healthcare industry strategist Ted Schwab said, they need to consider whether the solution works, whether it can be tailored to meet the needs of their beneficiaries, whether it’s secure, whether it can connect to other solutions and whether the company offering the solution has financial staying power.
Parrott added that “proven demonstrable outcomes” — financially, clinically and with patient experience — will have staying power with employers.