Going beyond today’s telemedicine toward tomorrow’s virtual care

Understanding the definition of telemedicine


With the healthcare landscape continuously changing and moving to a value-based care model, healthcare providers are looking to new technologies that lower costs and increase clinical efficiency while providing high quality care and improving patient outcomes. This has sparked a conversation on what to call the “next generation healthcare tools.” Telemedicine continues to be thrown around in the discussion and is in ascendency within the industry, but it looks like that might be changing as more innovative technologies, such as virtual care, are coming to the forefront.

The term “telemedicine” made its debut back in the 1960s as a fusion of tele-matic modes of communication (phone and video) and medicine. Telemedicine is defined as the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by telecommunications technology. As with many terms, this definition is both broad and simplistic. Today, telemedicine refers not only to the model of care delivery, but also to the technology used to deliver care.

The traditional episodic care telemedicine models are delivered outside the primary care relationship and separated from the care continuum. The technology used to deliver this care is, as the definition suggests, primarily through telecommunications technologies such as phone or the slightly more advanced video consultation.

Telemedicine has been implemented for decades, which may explain why this telecommunications technology is struggling to fit into our digital world, so why is the technology up for debate in the conversation of next generation healthcare tools in the first place?

Why traditional technology like telemedicine falls short
Telemedicine technology has been endlessly hyped as the solution that fills in the gaps in patient care access in the U.S. But, the technology alone is insufficient to meet the challenges facing the healthcare industry, falling short of effectively supporting both healthcare providers and patients.

To put it succinctly, telemedicine is overrated. Neither the technology nor the model are ready to address the trends in healthcare, including growing physician shortages, declining reimbursements, the transition to value-based care, and the shift of healthcare risk to patients. These trends are already starting to significantly impact healthcare systems’ ability to operate effectively and successfully meet the needs of patients.

Telemedicine isn’t the answer. This traditional technology does not offer the necessary scaling or efficiencies to meet the growing demand for care or address the reductions in access that are growing out of rural hospital closures and the rising provider shortage. Moreover, studies of the siloed, episodic care delivered through traditional telemedicine models indicate concerns around care quality and outcomes. One recent study published in JAMA found that adherence to national best practices through telemedicine visits ranged from 34.4 to 66.1 percent. There are also privacy concerns when using video and phone consults, requiring healthcare providers to secure a private space for “seeing” patients in accordance with HIPAA guidelines. In addition to privacy concerns, video and phone consultations offer limited or no provider efficiencies over in-person visits. Telemedicine technology cannot support providers and health systems seeking to reduce care delivery costs or serve a greater patient population.

With traditional telemedicine technologies falling short in the areas of efficiency, scalability and quality, the healthcare industry must look to innovative technology that address these trends while also fitting into this digital healthcare industry.

Virtual care opens the digital front door to healthcare
Providers may have some familiarity with telemedicine, since the technology has been around for decades, but we need to shift our focus away from the familiar and toward technology that fits into the world we live in – a digital world. New technology always comes with initial hesitation, and this holds true for the healthcare industry. Yet, with virtual care, there should be less hesitation as this technology is proven to provide health systems with an opportunity to meet the changing industry’s needs.

Virtual care offers a forward-thinking, end-to-end approach that integrates with existing systems and scales to serve a patient’s needs across the healthcare continuum—whether that care falls within urgent care, chronic care, pediatric care, behavioral health or laboratory testing. Implementing virtual care allows health systems to deliver a single patient experience, resulting in expanded patient access, high quality care and proven clinical efficiencies.

Virtual care is more than just a video chat or a phone call. Virtual care modalities still leverage the power of the direct-to-video and phone consults, but within the context of a full-spectrum virtual care program that offers evidence-based clinical guidelines to help drive optimal clinical decision-making. These clinical decisions are made possible through an online adaptive patient interview that allows patients to provide their symptoms online for the provider to review and diagnosis the same day. Another option that virtual care provides is advanced triage services that seamlessly connects the online experience for a patient with in-clinic, brick-and-mortar services, such as laboratory testing, when they are needed.

A comprehensive platform for virtual care removes the limitations of traditional telemedicine by incorporating an innovative approach that aligns with the patient’s life flow as well as the provider’s workflow. Patients can be treated quickly and easily from home and work; providers can provide care when and where their clinical schedules allow.

Quieting healthcare’s biggest concerns
With the move to value-based care and the idea of population health management becoming a reality, providers are tasked with identifying innovative technologies that lower costs while also improving patient outcomes – and virtual care accomplishes this. Integrated with existing solutions like EMRs and patient portals, virtual care technology ensures fast and accurate diagnoses and treatment plans, and supports care continuity across the healthcare ecosystem from acute problems to chronic disease management. Virtual care incorporates clinical protocols developed using national best practice guidelines and timely clinical decision support that helps increase adherence to those guidelines.

A virtual care platform offers increased efficiency and scalability over traditional telemedicine technologies. With providers able to diagnose and treat patients in a fraction of the time required by an in-person visit or video or phone consultation, more patients can be treated by fewer providers. Additionally, this efficiency enables health systems to lower the cost of delivering care, making this care delivery channel increasingly viable in an era of diminishing reimbursements.

There are also financial benefits for health systems that implement a virtual care platform. In a recent study performed by Carrot Health, approximately 25 percent of new patient users converted to a health system patient by receiving in-person care within 12 months of their virtual visit, resulting in an average annual revenue increase of close to $3,000 per converted patient . Theses numbers do not include new patients, and once these patients are factored in, health systems will begin to see virtual care technology’s true impact.

Making the shift to the future
The healthcare industry is beginning to take notice and understand the benefits to implementing virtual care – and so are patients. According to the American Telemedicine Association, more than more than one million virtual doctor visits took place in 2015 . With health system and patient buy in, virtual care is now part of the conversation and considered the next generation of healthcare delivery. Virtual care is the future, and the future looks bright.

1 http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2511324?resultClick=3
2 https://www.zipnosis.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Zipnosis.-Carrot-Health-ROI-White-Paper.pdf
3 https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-telemedicine-is-transforming-health-care-1466993402

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