Covid-19 forced healthcare organizations to make a huge leap forward in their digital transformation roadmaps. Although many companies had plans on the books to advance telemedicine, the crisis revealed that virtual care is not only possible but in many cases is also preferred by patients. Virtual care also offers an opportunity to enhance patient experience, improve population health, reduce costs and improve the work life of health care providers — the quadruple aim of healthcare.
“To improve patient outcomes, we have to involve a patient’s family and significant others in their care, because it must extend beyond the four walls of the hospital,” says Dr. Reetu Singh, senior medical director, clinical documentation integrity at AdventHealth. “With virtual care, you are providing that care continuum, and therefore providing better outcomes. And that’s the future – this is what patients want. Our future is technology. We have to be at the forefront and provide care where our patients are; we need to go to patients instead of patients coming to us.”
Many healthcare organizations are working on advancing virtual care options. That said, the path to digital healthcare transformation is bumpy – more so than for other sectors. Healthcare was already lagging in adopting virtual models, and the realities of patient care, reimbursement and privacy concerns add significant complexity.
The Case for Permanent Hybrid Healthcare
The future of healthcare is most likely a hybrid model, where patients receive a mix of virtual and in-person care. This shift to hybrid care could ameliorate some of the major problems in the U.S. healthcare system. For instance, the U.S. has a shortage of primary care clinicians, which means it can be difficult to get an appointment. The shortage is especially acute in rural and impoverished urban communities. Many patients end up turning to urgent care or emergency departments, far costlier than a standard office visit.
The good news is that many signs point to the future of healthcare being hybrid, with patients receiving a mix of virtual and in-person care:
- Telehealth use initially skyrocketed to nearly 40 times from before Covid and has stabilized at a high level.
- Downloads of medical apps increased 65% last year.
- Investment in the digital health space in the first half of 2021 reached nearly $15 billion, surpassing 2020 and doubling the amount in 2019.
- Finally, estimates say U.S. healthcare spending could shift up to $250 billion to virtual care in coming years.
The insurance side is jumping on board, too. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service (CMS) approved dozens of new telehealth services last year, and payers are beginning to offer virtual-first health plans, where patients first see a virtual provider before making an in-person appointment.
Big Challenges On The Road to Hybrid Healthcare
Although hybrid healthcare offers a lot of promise, organizations have major hurdles to overcome to complete a true digital transformation.
1. Hybrid Healthcare Must Offer A Seamless Patient Experience.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is making the virtual patient experience seamless and fully integrated with in-person healthcare services. Say you have a virtual checkup, and your doctor orders a blood test. Unlike when you’re in the office, you’re going to have to take some extra steps to get that test completed – a potentially big friction point. Virtual care providers must figure out how to integrate with testing organizations to make the experience easier, similar to the big push to make at-home Covid screening possible.
The development of increasingly sophisticated remote patient monitoring and diagnostic tools will help improve the experience. There are already a lot of tools on the market to make the virtual healthcare experience easier. For instance, Kencor Health has a digital assistant that reminds patients to take their vitals and automatically shares that information with their clinicians.
Virtual, artificial and augmented reality will play an important role in connecting the virtual and in-person experience, too – the healthcare augmented and virtual reality market is expected to reach over $16 billion by 2027. To share just one example, Healthymize is an app that uses artificial intelligence to monitor patients’ voices to screen for respiratory diseases such as pneumonia and asthma.
2. Hybrid Healthcare Must Consider the Digital Divide.
The digital divide is another problem healthcare faces in the transition to hybrid models. Although virtual healthcare can improve access for underserved populations, what happens when those patients don’t have internet access or can’t afford the mobile phones or other remote monitoring tools needed to make virtual healthcare work? What about patients who may not be comfortable navigating the technology? Care and insurance providers must figure out a way to design a hybrid healthcare experience that doesn’t leave segments of the population behind.
3. Hybrid Healthcare Requires A Smart Organizational Strategy.
Finally, just like every other industry in 2021, healthcare must figure out how to design a hybrid workplace strategy or risk a talent exodus. Although healthcare is among those industries where some workers must be in person (particularly clinicians), administrative, IT and other backend groups can effectively work remotely. Therefore, some hospitals are evaluating a reduction in administrative space to reduce costs. It all comes down to figuring out how each group can be most effective to benefit the organization.
These are big, thorny issues healthcare must solve before hybrid or virtual-first healthcare becomes ubiquitous. That said, if there’s anything the pandemic proved, it’s that healthcare can solve big challenges, and quickly. The return is well worth the effort, as virtual healthcare offers an opportunity to lower costs, improve population health and usher in a new wave of industry innovation.