Beyond the Virtual Visit: Seizing the Opportunity of Distributed Care
The pandemic has unquestionably sparked a massive demand for telehealth. According to data from Publicis Sapient’s Digital Life Index, more than 40% of Americans have visited a healthcare provider virtually. And this trend is here to stay; 76% of Americans said they plan to use telehealth either more or at the same rate even after the pandemic is over.
It’s not the virtual tour itself that’s revolutionary, but rather what it resulted in. Consumers increasingly expect healthcare to be convenient and highly responsive, and for healthcare information and services to be readily available and personalized, enabling a seamless experience even when seeing a new caregiver. Essentially, patients expect many aspects of digital health to operate like the fast transactions they’ve grown accustomed to since the rise of online banking and shopping.
However, health care revolves around relationships in a way you don’t see in banking or shopping. Prioritizing convenience while maintaining valuable relationships between patients and care teams is at the heart of digital healthcare transformation and will help transform the trend of virtual care into something more sophisticated: distributed”, where everything can be done digitally — and much of it at home.
The truth is, patients have been telling us what they’ve wanted from digital health experiences for many years – Keep it simple, know who I am, be smart, and connect the dots. You can see how these four elements require enhanced experiences in transactional engagements, and from there reflect and recreate important healthcare relationships. It also requires data and AI to focus and drive digital health experiences.
Here’s what the industry needs to do to get there.
Use data to create and nurture relationships
Using digital clinical (and non-clinical) data and histories can create stronger relationships with patients, as they will feel that healthcare providers understand them and that all parties providing their care are aligned. Digitally documented interactions with healthcare providers mean that follow-up visits, even with a different doctor, don’t require patients to repeat information from the first visit. If done right, it doesn’t matter who patients see — online or in person — as long as all healthcare providers have the patient’s medical information. This is fundamental to the group care model that people expect, where different care providers, in different roles, provide care as one team, with the patient at the heart.
Healthcare providers also need to embrace AI, including machine learning, to help healthcare professionals quickly gain insights from data, which they can use when communicating and treating patients. AI is fundamental to creating more personalized digital experiences. Take the relatively simple example of personalized information delivery, an area where other industries have harnessed sophisticated algorithms to great effect; but in healthcare patients, treatment information is rarely personalized, time-sensitive, based on their specific conditions, medical history, or how and when they best consume the information.
Create easy-to-use platforms
Consumers are increasingly looking for convenient access to medical care. Publicis Sapient’s Digital Life Index found that a lack of telehealth options was the third most common reason for delaying care, after concerns about cost and exposure to Covid-19. Getting the transactional basics, like being able to choose who treats you, a convenient time, and making an appointment, is important. However, this is not enough; today’s consumers want to do everything in one place, from booking an appointment to viewing their medical records to taking a virtual visit. More and more medical providers need to adopt a platform mindset to meet these consumer expectations.
For too long, the healthcare community thought it was too hard to meet consumer expectations, but that time has passed, and in this platform world, we’re starting to see change.
From a transactional perspective, Northwestern Medicine offers integrated communication platforms, where chatbots lead to live agents, if needed, on its app. While this is common in banking or retail, it doesn’t happen often enough in healthcare, requiring patients to jump from app to email to make phone calls.
Practices must be reorganized for the care distributed
Healthcare practices need to reorganize where and how they work in order to create effective digital experiences. As we’ve seen in other industries, the reality is hybrid, as consumers have grown accustomed to digital and hybrid services like ordering items for curbside pickup. To create a similar experience in healthcare, medical practices must recognize that phone calls or visiting a primary care clinic are no longer the only dominant starting points for medical care.
One Medical pioneered the first digital healthcare, linked to their clinics and large hospital networks like Mount Sinai. But their digital-first approach is made possible by reimagining different provider roles, from new kinds of digital administrators to nurses taking on first-stage roles and doctors being used in more collaborative ways. This means they have redesigned their physical clinics to be more geared towards checks and functions such as blood draws, massively reducing wait times as more often than not the matter has already been explored via the digital channels. This means that communication with the patient is done digitally, i.e. within hours; but it’s also happening in a more connected way, allowing them to provide personal care in the digital space.
Meanwhile, health returns to the house. Or more precisely to return to the house. Telemetry tools, like connected stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs, as well as mobile phone apps, make it easier to monitor conditions at home, eliminating the need for some in-person visits.
The platforms will allow patient data to be collected and integrated remotely into the workflow of a clinic or hospital, giving AI programs as well as human healthcare professionals the ability to access and analyze them. The same platforms should allow medical staff to communicate with colleagues and patients. The Mayo Clinic is leading the way with such initiatives, recently launching Lucem Health, a joint venture with startup Commure that collects and integrates data from remote diagnostic tools into AI-based algorithms and clinical workflows. .
Innovation depends on regulatory changes
Similar to what we have seen in the financial sector with the rise of digital banking, regulatory changes in the healthcare sector, many of which emerged as temporary emergency measures during the pandemic, have resulted in a rapid innovation. Foremost among these changes are US insurers and Medicaid programs offering billing codes and reimbursement for virtual visits. These changes must become permanent and more widespread in order to continue to encourage the digital health experiences that the industry needs. In terms of data, we have seen a relaxation of data sharing rules to meet the challenges of Covid, and now we need strong data governance guidelines that can protect and benefit current and future patients. This will be another necessary step towards delivering the future of distributed care.
What Covid and these regulatory changes have made clear is that healthcare innovation happens when it’s needed. It would be hard to go back from here; the proverbial genius is already out of the bottle, and patients now get a taste of how healthcare can work with the same convenience and ownership they experience with banking, travel, shopping or television. In order to continue to meet the needs and expectations of patients, the industry must ensure that increased convenience and confidence in data also supports improved fundamental relationships between patients and caregivers. Only then will we deliver on the promise of distributed care.
Photo: Yevgeny Gromov, Getty Images