By Peter Rasmussen 

For all the stress COVID-19 has put on the U.S. healthcare system, the pandemic ultimately will come to be seen as a watershed moment—namely, the point at which virtual care came into its own as a major factor in healthcare delivery.

recent survey by a national telehealth services provider indicates that hospitals and health systems expect to expand their use of telehealth beyond the COVID era. Indeed, the results point to the imminent arrival of “virtual care 3.0,” or the next era of digital care delivery. Virtual care 1.0 represented pre-COVID use of telehealth for urgent care; 2.0, the pandemic’s need-driven use of scheduled virtual primary and specialty care appointments. Virtual care 3.0 marks the advent of “smart growth” as telehealth emerges as a permanent fixture on the healthcare landscape and progressive health plans and providers take virtual care to the next level.

How can healthcare providers, health plans and employers successfully reach virtual care 3.0, leveraging telehealth to improve outcomes, access and the patient experience? The experience of The Clinic by Cleveland Clinic points to four ways to fully realize the next stage of telehealth’s evolution.

No. 1: Telehealth is the great equalizer

Leveraging virtual health’s full potential requires that individuals have access to the expertise necessary to address a wide range of healthcare needs. Virtual-savvy consumers are already exploring on-demand video consultations with physician specialists, from behavioral health specialists to dermatologists, neurologists and endocrinologists. That’s a trend that is likely to increase as people move beyond use of telehealth for one-time-only needs toward scheduled virtual visits with physicians across specialties.

Leading providers, health plans and employers now view telehealth as an opportunity to normalize access to “physician rockstars,” eliminating lengthy travel times for in-person consultations and closing gaps in access to care for vulnerable populations. The Clinic, for example, pairs underserved populations—including those in rural areas—with virtual access to the most appropriate specialists in their condition.


No. 2: A robust approach to telehealth ensures patients receive the right care

The market for second opinions is projected to reach $7 billion by 2024, up from $2.7 billion in 2019. But a second opinion from just any physician is not sufficient. Patients—especially those facing the most clinically challenging conditions—require the right specialist to address their specific condition. Telehealth empowers patients to gain virtual access to an institution like Cleveland Clinic, with expert specialists who have the condition-specific knowledge that comes from many years of experience. This supports improved outcomes while reducing costs associated with patient travel as well as the potential for misdiagnoses and improper treatment.

One study found that health plans incur an average of more than 6,000 misdiagnoses per 100,000 members, resulting in an estimated cost of $92 million, while employers encounter an average of 1,524 misdiagnoses per 25,000 employees, resulting in an estimated cost of $23 million per 25,000 employees.

Virtual second opinions from the right expert specialist help prevent patient harm and avoidable healthcare expense by reducing the chances for misdiagnoses from the start.


No. 3: Well-designed virtual care can improve the patient care experience

With the vast majority of healthcare providers now offering some kind of virtual care option for patients, telehealth on its own is no longer a differentiator or unique value-add. If care doesn’t feel personalized and specialized, patients will look elsewhere. In an increasingly digital environment, bolstering physicians’ web presence and savvy with “webside training” will be vital to securing patients’ trust. So will tools and approaches that help humanize the patient experience.

Used to its full potential, telehealth can also improve in-person patient care. Anecdotally, telehealth patients in The Clinic report an overall better care experience, particularly when they require second opinions or a transition to in-person care. One reason is that The Clinic providers perform many of the behind-the-scenes tasks, such as health record collection, that most providers leave to the patient. As a result, health record transfers take place in seconds rather than the days or weeks it can take patients to obtain these records and bring them to their appointments.


No. 4: Telehealth excellence provides a competitive edge

An important concept illustrated by The Clinic’s approach is that telehealth is a vehicle, not a destination, for better healthcare. It is less about using virtual care to deliver convenience than it is about using the technology to deliver timely, appropriate, high-quality medical expertise to meet any given patient’s medical needs.

Telehealth by itself is no longer a unique benefit. Rather, an organization’s ability to pair members seeking virtual care with experts in their specific medical condition will be a critical competitive differentiator. By offering virtual access to the best available specialists and care, insurers can attract more corporate customers, and employers can attract higher-caliber employees.


It’s time for a next-level approach to telehealth

Ever since providers ramped up virtual care offerings to replace the loss of in-person visits during the first months of the pandemic, consumers and providers alike have come to appreciate virtual care’s value. Now, members and employees expect it as part of their benefits packages. In a 2020 physician-consumer survey on telehealth, 79% of consumers said they would see their primary care physician virtually, and 92% of providers said they plan to incorporate telehealth into their care post-COVID.

The Clinic’s experience teaches healthcare’s key stakeholders that virtual care isn’t just here to stay. It is fundamental to the success of every healthcare plan, provider and employer in 2022 and beyond.

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