How can Telehealth and the ‘digital front door’ drive transformational change in healthcare?

With the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen the exponential growth of Telehealth and accelerated pace of user adoption as well as changes to regulatory and reimbursement policies that have facilitated provider usage. Becker’s spoke with Jeff Wang, chief strategy officer in North America at Philips, about how the pandemic has changed healthcare and the opportunities that lie ahead.

Q1: How much has the pandemic shown us why healthcare is in need of radical change? 

It’s important to first recognize that healthcare has made the case for change for quite some time. Hospitals, physician groups, payers, government agencies, and healthcare innovators are all working to change the way that care is delivered, measured, coordinated, and paid for, etc. Those who work in healthcare know what that is like. 

The pandemic has made these ‘burning platforms’ even hotter. We have seen that healthcare payment models have been unable to cope when elective procedures are substituted for long-term respiratory admission. We have seen that access to care remains spotty, especially now that the pandemic is hitting less urban regions of the U.S. We also see that engagement with patients outside of the hospital, in the home or in community settings, is critically needed especially when dealing with a broad-based public health event. These transformation topics are not new to healthcare – but the pandemic has certainly made the case for them stronger. 

Q2: As Telehealth grows, what are some of the ways in which healthcare leaders can leverage the ‘digital front door’ to transform their organizations or improve patient care?

Telehealth adoption and implementation across different populations and different use cases will continue to expand. COVID-19 is showing us that provider and patient users alike are capable of embracing the new norms. With this adoption surge comes new enablers that help advance a digital care model such as interoperable data and documentation platforms, population analytics on utilization and referral patterns, and federated exchanges of health information to form a longitudinal patient record. 

But the hurdle to making these expansions happen is not the technology. A lot of the technical capabilities have been available to us for some time. Instead, the telemedicine industry’s bottleneck has been a reluctance to change our payment models, user behaviors, and regulatory schema. COVID-19 and the CARES Act have removed some barriers with overdue changes to policy and reimbursement, which paves the way to faster growth. In fact, recent research from Frost & Sullivan indicates that while the pre-COVID-19 telehealth growth forecast was 32.3%, it is now projected to double to 64.3% in 2020 due to COVID-related shifts in demand.1 However, the hard work remains of driving deep adoption and change management across healthcare stakeholders to truly leverage telehealth and create opportunities for growth.

Q3: How will virtual care help us re-design care delivery?

Telehealth and virtual care give us an exciting new way to think about device- and setting-agnostic care that will reveal more consumer-centric models. This will facilitate a new level of care, not exactly on-demand, but something more interoperable and consistent across patient encounters and settings. Health systems, payers and providers can establish networks of care beyond the hospital and clinics, with endpoints in the home, the workplace, the retailer, etc. Care delivery becomes frictionless. 

Philips is working on this with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), partnering on the ATLAS program to make healthcare more accessible and affordable for rural veterans. Inspired by this partnership with the VA, Philips is launching the Virtual Care Station, a private environment for face-to-face visits with a care provider in convenient community locations. Additionally, Philips supports a virtual network of critical care units for the VA with our eICU solution, providing the VA with a command-and-control platform to monitor and manage beds in multiple medical centers across zones. In each case, we are partnering to make care more seamless and networked via virtual care solutions. 

A stronger, more resilient healthcare system means continuing to move care beyond the hospital’s walls – to clinical offices, virtual care sites and patient homes – and augmenting that care with powerful, proactive artificial intelligence (AI) that complements the expertise of care providers.

Q4: How can Telehealth help healthcare achieve better economies of scale so that healthcare leaders can better align resources or reduce financial burdens?

At its best, a telehealth strategy should not only provide a more convenient and accessible care experience, but should also enable a health system to create economies of scale beyond the traditional visit model. With a digitally networked provider organization, supported by data interoperability, analytics, and device integration, the health system would be able to establish a hub-and-spoke model across its patient and provider population. 

This model enables a healthcare organization to manage and load balance utilization of care, so that patient access, provider staffing, and appropriateness of care can be optimized. Further, a hub-and-spoke model, when enabled with scalable IT infrastructure, can be expanded to cover expanding populations across geographies for greater economies of scale. The eICU solution is a prime example of how healthcare organizations are already using virtual care hubs to manage ICU patients in multiple spoke sites. 

We envision hub-and-spoke models becoming more and more mature, as well as their technology enablers, such that use cases in the home and other settings become more connected to hospital or clinic-based episodes. A health system would be able to manage home-based care models with the same rigor as a clinical service line, and with clear continuity of care from the hospital to the home. 

1Frost & Sullivan, Global Health Transformational Research Team report, Telehealth—A Technology-Based Weapon in the War Against the Coronavirus, 2020.

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