Telehealth evolution: Three opportunities for supporting the success and longevity of virtual care

The promise of telehealth in modern healthcare

Telehealth services proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic out of necessity, but in our increasingly online and on-demand society, they remain a popular option for patients and providers today. While there have been researched concerns about digital security and public health disparities, overall, telehealth is associated with improved outcomes, timely care, and cost-effective delivery of services.

Virtual care isn’t likely to disappear from the American healthcare system anytime soon, notes Christian Hartman, PharmD, Vice President, Product Innovation, Clinical Effectiveness for Wolters Kluwer, Health. This is, in part, because there is a care void that needs to be filled. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the United States could face a physician shortage of up to 86,000 by 2036, Hartman reports. This includes an estimated shortage of 20,200–40,400 primary care physicians and 10,100–19,900 physicians in surgical specialties. This will increase the difficulty in accessing appropriate or timely in-person care for many patients.

“Further, there are approximately 30 million people in the continental United States who live in healthcare deserts and don’t have good access to medical professionals,” Hartman says. “Telemedicine expands access to medical professionals in these medical deserts and can help aid with the growing healthcare shortage.”

To help meet this increasing demand, telehealth will need to transcend beyond being a technological novelty and convenience and evolve into a permanent and fully integrated healthcare delivery system that provides value to both patients and busy providers.

Three ways to ensure the longevity of virtual care

“In addition to expanding healthcare access, virtual care’s longevity will need to break down walls to make it easy for both the provider and patient to use it within their setting or workflow of choice,” Hartman says. While some of that of growth will come from developer innovation, much will be reliant on “continued support from government and payer organizations to ensure continued adoption and reimbursement models,” he explains.

There are three key challenges/opportunities that represent the next steps in telehealth’s evolution:

  1. Reimbursement
  2. Accessibility
  3. Patient engagement
Reimbursement: Uncertainty hinders telehealth’s full integration

When the COVID-19 public health emergency was lifted in 2023, some telehealth benefits were extended through the end of 2024. But the lingering uncertainty as to coverage and reimbursement for some telehealth services created varying levels of disruption for patients and providers, as well as telehealth developers and care plan administrators.

In 2023, more than 40 U.S. states required payers to implement coverage parity – meaning that any service covered by insurance for in-person care must also be covered for virtual care. However, only 21 states have fully implemented policies requiring payment parity, to appropriately fund the costs of telehealth services at the same rate as in-person care.

“Reimbursement could make or break telehealth in the long run,” Hartman says. “This is why it is important for telehealth to continue to demonstrate its role in improving healthcare access across demographics and regions.”

Accessibility: Making health resources available to all

Expansion of virtual care provides more options for patients who might have barriers or restrictions to in-person care, including geographic distance from care centers, physical immobility or limitations, lack of transportation, concerns over stigma about one’s condition, or inability to secure time off work or affordable childcare during the time of the appointment, to name a few.

Telehealth eliminates many of those barriers by allowing immediate access to a provider from a space in which the patient is comfortable and can control their own schedule. That could save time, expense, and offer a more convenient alternative that may be more likely to result in compliance with treatment recommendations.

Hartman sees even more potential in a hybrid model that employs local pharmacies as care centers to supplement virtual care. “According to the American Pharmacists Association, nearly 90% of Americans live within 5 miles of a community pharmacy,” he says. “Virtual care plus pharmacy can close the gaps.”

Engagement: Patients (and providers) require a quality care experience

When and where skepticism about telehealth still exists, it comes in the form of doubt about the quality of the care experience compared to in-person care. A 2022 Forbes magazine survey found that 58% of physicians believed telemedicine hindered their own ability to provide care on par with the quality of their in-person visits.

With a helping hand from integrated digital health content, virtual care technology can better engage both patients and providers and deliver a more enriching, patient-centric experience.

“Virtual care providers need access to clinical decision support within their telehealth software solutions to help make the best decisions, improve usability, and save time,” advises Hartman. Evidence-based clinical content accessible within the virtual care workflow helps providers quickly reference information they need without losing the on-screen connection they are working to establish and maintain with their patient.

For today’s patients, who are more digitally savvy and eager to understand their conditions and treatments, engagement in their health journey doesn’t end when they sign off from the visit, Hartman explains. In a 2022 survey of patients:

  • Nearly half of the respondents said they did not get all their questions answered during their provider encounter.
  • 80% often or sometimes had follow-up questions.
  • 80% said that if they were to receive patient education, they would be more satisfied with their care.

“Patients want to consume information in multiple ways,” Hartman says. “It is important that they receive education after a virtual visit, and that the education is delivered within the workflow of choice for the patient, in their preferred language, and in multiple formats.”

He notes that can include text messages with links to content, audio messages, videos, interactive programming, or whatever the patient prefers, as long as they have access to trusted follow-up information coming from their virtual care provider.

Whitepaper: How telehealth developers are getting ahead

As telehealth developers look ahead at challenges and opportunities, they must leverage digital content that brings value to patients and providers, promote a user-friendly experience, and offer solutions that enable high-quality care at a lower cost. To learn more, download the whitepaper “How telehealth software developers can get ahead with better clinical content for providers and patients.”

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