'There is risk in not doing it': Systems can't afford not to spend on digital health

The digital patient experience is becoming as important as the in-person patient experience as healthcare creeps beyond brick-and-mortar hospitals and non-traditional healthcare companies move to corner the primary care market.

Michael Saad, senior vice president CIO of University of Tennessee Medical Center, thinks expanding the digital platform and virtual care will be essential to attracting patients in the future. Mr. Saad said even though some health systems are dialing back their telehealth strategy, he sees a lot of value in pushing forward with virtual care.

"Sixty percent of consumers expect their digital healthcare experience to mirror their retail experience, or their experience in other sectors," he said during an interview with the Becker's Healthcare Podcast. "We have a lot of work to do as a healthcare industry to get there. I'm still very bullish on telehealth and I think we have a lot of opportunity in that space."

Health insurers, CVS, Walgreens and large retailers like Amazon are investing in virtual health and making the process simple and easy. Mr. Saad is working with his team on perfecting digital registration and check-in with an eye on the patient experience.

"You can sit on your couch and literally order food and have it delivered right to your door, and take care of the tip," he said. "I think that level of convenience is what consumers are looking for and frankly, starting to demand from healthcare providers."

The consumerization of healthcare requires health systems to invest in technology platforms, forge partnerships and make cultural shifts to accommodate patient expectations. At a moment when many health systems are seeing rising costs and shrinking budgets, spending on new technology and upending legacy processes for the digital patient experience may seem unnecessary.

Mr. Saad disagrees.

"There is risk in not doing it," he said. "Organizations that are not venturing into the digital health space are going to fall behind and do so pretty quickly, and it will be hard for them to catch up."

In some markets, health plans are requiring virtual visits and doing millions of telehealth visits per year themselves. Patients also prefer the telehealth option, especially in rural areas to avoid traveling long distances for in-person visits. The federal government has also indicated a desire to keep telehealth broadly available for Medicare beneficiaries.

Mr. Saad said the University of Tennessee has been more cautious about building out a hospital at home program. From the policy and legislative perspective, there isn't clarity around what will be allowable for hospital at home in the future, and it could change based on election cycles.

"We do need to understand from a legislative perspective what hospital-at-home looks like before we go all in on that process," he said.

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