What is the Ultimate Destination of Virtual Care?

Three differentiators that separate leaders from chasers in virtual health transformation.

For a friend of mine who lives with epilepsy, increased acceptance of telehealth’s value proposition means he no longer has to drive 20 miles into the city for specialty care. Instead, he’s able to visit his neurologist virtually from the comfort of his home, eliminating travel time for himself and his family without sacrificing continuity in care.

It’s clear that virtual care is no longer viewed as an episodic, one-time-only transaction for urgent care. Instead, it has evolved into a vehicle for longitudinal care, enabling patients with limited mobility to receive expert guidance from the comfort of home and supporting condition-specific coaching.

But as virtual care offerings elevate the patient experience, they also change patients’ expectations. Now, virtual access and digital touch-points alone won’t provide the value patients seek. Instead, healthcare leaders will have to up their game to compete in a post-COVID virtual care landscape, focusing on ease of access, personalized care and speed to insight.

There are three critical elements that will distinguish virtual care leaders from the competition in this rapidly evolving environment.

No. 1: Normalize Access to Specialists.

Virtual encounters have the potential to shift $250 billion in healthcare expenditures annually across covered populations, according to a McKinsey & Company analysis. But attaining value from virtual care demands that providers pair members with the best-qualified physicians to meet their care needs, not just specialists who focus broadly on a given disease state. For example, telehealth can connect individuals with life-altering diagnoses with experts who can assess their case and provide personalized guidance.

To normalize access to specialists, healthcare providers should ensure their virtual platform can match individuals with medical experts who are highly experienced in their specific condition. They should also explore ways to enhance digital health access to patients who need it most, such as those who live in rural areas or impoverished communities.

No. 2: Ensure that Quality Takes Center Stage.

In the move toward healthcare’s digital future, all three components of value—high quality, reduced cost and a superior experience—must be present in any virtual care offering. During the first months of the pandemic, the driving factor for selection of telehealth platforms was ease of use for physicians—not consumers. Now, as consumer expectations for virtual care evolve, healthcare leaders must consider:

  • How quickly can we accommodate telehealth appointments—and what investments and workflows are needed to speed access to care?
  • What tools could make virtual care more flexible and easier to use for both consumers and physicians?
  • What types of support do physicians need to more effectively engage patients virtually?
  • How can we better leverage telehealth to deliver high-quality, highly personalized care?

Consider that research by Deloitte shows just 36% of healthcare organizations provide webside training for telehealth, even though most physicians surveyed say they would like this training. By empowering physicians with such training, providers will be better positioned to gain patients’ trust during virtual encounters. This puts patients’ minds at ease, leading to a more relaxed discussion that helps physicians gain the insight they need to make informed care decisions. It also increases the chances that patients will follow their treatment plan.

No. 3: Make Preparation the Expectation.

To create frictionless virtual care experiences, providers must have the right processes in place to support medical decision making at the point of care. That means performing behind-the-scenes work ahead of telehealth appointments, from capturing the patient’s medical history to coordinating lab samples, imaging and more. It also demands that providers take responsibility for medical records transfer off consumers, some of whom fear they aren’t equipped to navigate this process on their own.

Approaching care with an innovation mindset also is key. Leading virtual providers supplement human encounters with electronic interactions, incorporating remote patient monitoring into care, where appropriate, and offering opportunities to connect with live support via chat when care questions arise. They also invest in analytic tools that predict patient risk. These tools arm clinicians with the data needed to initiate personalized interventions. They also help keep consumers informed and engaged at each stage of their patient journey, regardless of where or how they receive care.

Unlocking the Potential to Transform Virtual Care

Now that the virtual modality is a significant and lasting component of care delivery, providers will need to differentiate their virtual capabilities from the competition to succeed in an evolving environment. By exploring opportunities to enhance access to specialists, elevate quality of care and create seamless patient experiences, providers will be better positioned to strengthen their virtual value proposition in 2021 and beyond.

Frank McGillin is CEO of The Clinic by Cleveland Clinic.