Health’s New Future: Can the Healthcare Ecosystem Sustain the Virtual Health Revolution?

June 10, 2020
The increased use of virtual health is exposing a weakness that must be addressed to improve the future of care: lack of integration

Virtual health isn’t just a sign of the times. It’s a sign of the future. COVID-19 has been a major catalyst for virtual health adoption. In fact, one app provider saw a 650 percent increase in usage across one of the US COVID-19 hotspots.

We will likely never go back to where we were pre-pandemic because—even if out of necessity—the entire healthcare ecosystem is now witnessing the benefits of virtual health. However, the increased use of virtual health is exposing a weakness that must be addressed to improve the future of care: lack of integration.

As a healthcare consumer myself, I have preferred virtual care for years. Rather than seeing a primary care physician in person, I often opt for a virtual visit so I can quickly get the care I need—from wherever I am at the time. Now, due to COVID-19, healthcare providers are using virtual visits and messaging to care for quarantined and “concerned well” patients. Triage can happen quickly and safely through hotlines for patients and health plan members. Chatbots are helping people to understand whether they need to urgently seek help.

Virtual health is also allowing doctors to deliver mental health services (which have become especially important during the coronavirus pandemic), treat chronic conditions and monitor patients remotely. Patients get the advice they need from the safety and comfort of their home, and the provider treats patients efficiently and effectively while reducing burden on the system.

Adapting to the new

Pre-pandemic, we knew that many healthcare consumers across generations would choose virtual for basic care services if given the choice. Younger consumers are also more open to receiving virtual care services from non-traditional providers such as technology or social media companies, retail brands and medical startups. COVID-19 has likely accelerated this trend.

Clinicians and consumers are acclimating to the virtual approach, both payers and providers benefit from it and reimbursement models are catching up. But the healthcare ecosystem as a whole needs to do more to make virtual health viable for the long term.

What we need is a marriage of digital-physical to provide effective, safe care. The new future of care will rely on seamless, coordinated care that provides people with the right attention, service, therapies and products anytime, anywhere, to instill confidence and safety across all moments.

Making it sustainable

As the need for distance becomes persistent, care providers need the ability to deliver “touchless” products, services and care—anytime, anywhere. Our estimates show that in the future, 1 in 3 healthcare visits will be conducted virtually.

So, what needs to change to make virtual a routine part of healthcare models? Here are three things that I recommend healthcare ecosystem players do now to enable the new future of care:

1.      Connect the dots. Virtual care often happens episodically – the one-off visit, the one-time treatment, the singular interaction – and it doesn’t become part of the holistic view of the patient or member. Instead, virtual should help enable a seamless care journey. All care experiences should be connected whether they are digital or analog, virtual or in-person.

2.       Provide the data. Doctors and other care providers need more data at their fingertips to be able to effectively deliver virtual care. Right now, data sits in silos, it’s not in the right format and therefore cannot easily be integrated to provide a 360-degree view of the patient, which is essential for delivering personalized care.

3.       Expand capacity. Healthcare payers and providers should aim to broaden the network of providers that serve consumers. Virtual allows health systems to have more hands on deck. Whether it’s adding clinicians to help with surge capacity or bringing specialists from across the world on board to treat rare illnesses, virtual care significantly expands reach. 

The pandemic has fueled a massive shift to virtual care. The entire health ecosystem must heed this shift and work together now to integrate virtual health into care and business models. Consumers, healthcare organizations, technology companies and employers will all benefit from this shift.

Rich Birhanzel is a senior managing director and leads Accenture’s global health practice.

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