Prior to COVID-19, telehealth and virtual care models were challenged by financial, legal, and organizational hurdles that limited their growth. The COVID-19 pandemic removed, or at least lessened, many of those barriers as virtual visits skyrocketed due to facility closures, canceled procedures, and regulations that expanded telehealth access and reimbursement.
According to Forrester, it's estimated that patients logged more than 1 billion virtual care visits in 2020. The meteoric rise of virtual visits during COVID-19 left many questioning: What does online care look like in the future? Is telehealth here to stay?
The answer is yes, but most likely as part of hybrid care models that combine both in-person and virtual visits.
Virtual Care is Here to Stay
In our inaugural Patient Engagement survey, two in three respondents indicated that they accessed care via telehealth since COVID-19 began, with 36% doing so three or four times and 31% said they accessed virtual care once or twice.
The growth of physicians using virtual visits also grew dramatically. According to Amwell's 2020 survey of physicians and consumers, 80% of physicians reported use of telehealth, up from 22% pre-pandemic.
Although telehealth visits began to taper off when healthcare facilities reopened, virtual visits have stayed well above pre-pandemic levels. Amwell reported that 92% of providers said they expect to continue video visits when in-person care resumed, and 70% said they expect to be using telehealth three years from now. The majority of providers who had not yet adopted telehealth also stated they would expect to do so within the next three years.
Our Patient Engagement survey also revealed that virtual visits improved access to healthcare services and made healthcare more convenient. Patients highlighted lower consultation costs, improved doctor availability, and seamless integration with online prescription fulfillment and delivery platforms as some of the benefits of virtual visits.
Opportunities and Challenges Persist for Patients and Providers Alike
While overall consumer awareness is higher than before, access to virtual care remains an issue. Not all consumers can access virtual care—or even know whether or not their physician offers it. In addition, broadband availability is a major concern for rural populations and patients living in poverty.
Physicians report an expanded array of telehealth use cases, including prescription renewals, chronic care check-ins, post-discharge follow-up, urgent care visits, and even initial patient appointments. The willingness of specialists to use telehealth increased in 2020 across the board, doubling for several high-volume specialties, including radiology, cardiology, and surgery, in the Amwell survey.
However, providers cite technology challenges, uncertainty about reimbursement, and questions about clinical appropriateness as persistent barriers to expanding virtual care. Meeting consumer demands, reimagining care pathways, and identifying the best platforms and modalities are also of high importance.
Among the considerations for future growth, hybrid care models can provide better access for both patients and providers. First, however, health systems will need a cohesive strategy that emphasizes ease of use and allows flexible, interoperable solutions.
Hybrid is Already Here
Across industries and in consumers' minds, the lines between online and in-person experiences are already blurred. For example, consider our current banking or shopping expectations. We make an online deposit one day and visit a local bank branch another. Similarly, we complete an online purchase from a retailer and elect to return or exchange it at their brick-and-mortar store.
In a consumer-driven world that combines the virtual and physical, healthcare is no exception. Many patients find the benefit of hybrid care in situations such as not having to take time off from work or hire childcare. Even more, elderly patients can easily include extended family members or caregivers in their virtual health consultations. As consumers become savvier about what is possible in virtual care, providers will have to adjust their patient engagement initiatives to meet patients' expectations and growing demands.
Developing hybrid care models that provide a seamless experience for patients and providers alike is no small task. There is a myriad of considerations for health systems, such as how to provide additional in-home testing and contactless services such as integrating smart healthcare devices into video visits. To make hybrid models work, health systems must revisit workflows, workforce, technology, capital expenditures, policy, and regulation—as well as patient engagement.
For the future of healthcare, one thing is clear: providing care via one method—solely online or in-person—is not sustainable. This is why the industry is trending toward hybrid care models however, there are still important barriers and gaps that health systems need to address for hybrid care models to be successful. Ensure your health system's hybrid care model is patient-centric by downloading our eBook: Four Tips To Ensure Your Hybrid Care Model Is Patient-Centric.