Virtual Care: A Real-World Strategic Asset

"Think about it: A traditional 20-minute doctor visit is never just 20 minutes for the patient. For the patient, the visit can be a two- to three-hour ordeal. You've got transportation to the clinic, parking, waiting for the doctor, transportation back home – and often trips to the pharmacy and lab. Often times, it's a family member or caregiver that has to accompany the patients, so even if the appointment is just for a routine visit, it causes a big disruption." – Anna-Lisa Silvestre, chief engagement officer at Conversa Health and former vice-president of digital health services at Kaiser Permanente

In the face of such hassles, consumers are embracing emerging virtual care models, which empower patients to take control of their health by having the majority of care taking place "virtually" through online resources and access to clinicians via phone, email or video technologies. The fact that payment models are now supporting virtual care, however, is probably what's pushing healthcare organizations to actually make the move to this alternative delivery model. 

"Providing good care through technology is one thing, but no one is going to do it unless they are paid for it," said Roy Schoenberg, CEO of American Well, a Boston-based telehealth services company. "Fortunately, the large health insurance companies are starting to reimburse clinicians for seeing patients through telehealth technologies. That would not have been the case four or five years ago." 

With the demand and the payment model in synch, the big question is this: How can healthcare organizations truly capitalize on the momentum to ensure that virtual care moves from a growing trend to an enduring force? 

To start, leaders must look beyond the novelty of the technologies and think more strategically, according to Sean Slovenski, CEO of Care Innovations, a joint venture of Intel and GE that focuses on connecting people to their healthcare. 

"Organizations need to create a virtual care strategy that actually spells out specific goals in their specific context," he said. "It's one thing to say I want to buy 40 remote patient monitoring devices and use them with a handful of diabetic patients. It's a different thing to say I want to find a solution that will monitor 10,000 diabetic patients and improve overall population health. Anybody can whip out a blood pressure cuff and say, 'Let's go test this on somebody,' but to actually have a strategy in place so you can create a sustainable model, you have to know what the plan is in the first place." 

Leaders need to understand how the technologies will enhance workflow by engaging patients, caregivers and clinicians. With this in-depth understanding, organizations can then tailor technology applications to meet specific objectives, according to Slovenski. 

As organizations move down this more strategic path, it's likely that they will tap into virtual care as a means to collect data that can help to inform clinical care decisions. As such, healthcare will radically transform as virtual care will become part of the "fabric of modern care delivery," according to Schoenberg. 

"Clinicians will no longer practice telemedicine or telehealth," he said. "Instead, they will simply practice medicine with technology as part of the way they interact with patients."