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Virtual health: The time is now

We are five days away from the start of HIMSS18. One topic that is sure to be a fixture across the show floor and a theme in the educational sessions is that of virtual health. A term that has been in the conversation for some time now is oftentimes used synonymously with digital health, or mobile health, or telehealth. But there are important distinctions. What I expect to see shift in the dialogue this year at HIMSS18 is the sense of urgency. In my opinion, when it comes to adoption and implementation of virtual health programs, the time is now.

Let’s start by defining what we mean when we talk about “virtual health.” I view virtual health as a method of enabling continuous, connected care via digital and telecommunication technologies. It is important to note that this goes beyond simply enabling video visits – virtual health has the capability to act as a complement or, in some applicable cases, a complete substitute for in-person care. With applications designed to drive connected, coordinated care, virtual health presents an exciting opportunity for health care organizations to increase access, improve the quality and value of care, and establish a competitive advantage. While the concept of virtual health is not new and has been under development for decades, as a physician and as a health care leader, I am particularly excited now about the possibilities of how we change the way care is delivered.

There is a significant gap between customer support for virtual health and its utilization amongst these customers, as demand continues to outpace adoption across the health care landscape. According to the AHA, recent studies show that 74 percent of people would be willing to utilize telehealth services, and 76 percent prioritize access to care over the need for human interactions with their physicians.1 Despite this demand, only 21 percent of Americans have actually used virtual health services.2

Health care organizations can close this gap and separate themselves as an early adopter of virtual health by establishing virtual health programs now. Providers are beginning to realize this. Twenty-six percent of group practices currently offer telehealth services, with an additional 15 percent planning to start in 2018,3 and 76 percent of hospitals have or will be implementing telehealth programs by the end of 2018.4 Yet it goes beyond just providers – health plans and medical technology companies are making significant investments in technology, and many are keen to use this to distinguish themselves in the health care marketplace. These organizations are exploring how to enable or grow their technology solutions to provide differentiated services. Is the answer be virtual health?

Reimbursements have been one of the most significant obstacles to virtual health adoption, but payment opportunities are expanding as insurers recognize the financial value of these offerings. 34 states now have laws requiring private payers to cover telehealth services,5 and 74 percent of large employer-sponsored health plans offered telemedicine benefits in 2016 (up from 48 percent in 2015).6 Medicare Part B covers certain services, like office visits and consultations, that are provided using an interactive two-way telecommunications system.7 And in the case of Medicaid, 48 states and DC provide reimbursement for live-video in Medicaid fee-for-service.8 Moving forward, I anticipate the spectrum of reimbursement will only continue to grow.

An increase in enabling technologies is also making it easier to implement virtual health. Improvements in internet speed, connectivity, and the rising prevalence of smartphones enable virtual interaction between providers, patients, payers, and medtech. Health care organizations should consider adopting virtual health now to be on the forefront of where the industry is going, and to position themselves as leaders in the new ways of delivering care.

By embracing virtual health, health care organizations can potentially reduce costs, improve clinical outcomes, increase patient engagement, and expand access to care. Efficiencies gained through virtual health could drive down health care costs – it is estimated that virtual visits could save an average of $126 per visit,9 and about $7 billion worth of primary care physicians’ time annually could be saved if yearly visits shifted to virtual visits.10 When I was practicing medicine, these were the types of efficiencies I longed for. The benefits span across the industry, as patients, providers, and insurers all realize savings.

Virtual health solutions can enhance continuity of care and enable more robust data and analytics that lead to better clinical outcomes – we are seeing organizations see benefits beyond just reducing the cost of delivering care, but also in average length of stay, and reduced readmissions.1 As more virtual health programs are established, the evidence supporting better quality of care continues to mount. There is no denying that virtual health demonstrates impactful results across the continuum of care. With broad implementation, virtual health has the potential to significantly impact patient engagement and accountability. For instance, patients are able to spend more of their time directly interacting with their provider, rather than travelling to appointments and sitting in waiting rooms. Through virtual health, patients become more active participants in the delivery of care and are empowered to take control of their treatment and be champions for their own health.

Virtual health programs have the ability to expand access to care for patients, especially in rural and underserved areas. Technology solutions enable connections to patients who would otherwise have difficulty seeking care. Already, there have been 3,000 rural sites connected to 200 telemedicine networks for specialty consultations, CME, and other services.11 We are not only engaging with patients to be more active in their care, but also reaching a broader group of patients who need access.

Thoughtfully implementing virtual health programs in a scalable, enterprise approach will be critical to the long term success of any organization’s program. Determining and clearly articulating the goals and strategy for virtual health before embarking on this journey is a key to laying an enterprise, scalable foundation that can be built upon for years to come. Thinking about where technology investments have been made and can be utilized to support virtual health can help make the process less daunting. Regardless of the starting point, it is important to approach the development of a virtual health program from an enterprise approach factoring in the people, process, and technology implications for each use case.

All in all, there is ample change coming to the health care landscape. Virtual health is on the rise and set to become a standard in the way care is delivered. While many health care organizations I’ve been working with are embracing virtual health in some capacity, many have the opportunity to think about it as a competitive advantage and as a driver of connected, coordinated care. Virtual health is ripe for adoption, and the time is now.

I’ll be at HIMSS18 next week. If you’re there and want to connect on the possibilities around virtual health, send me a note!

1 https://www.aha.org/system/files/research/reports/tw/15jan-tw-telehealth.pdf
2 http://www.mobihealthnews.com/content/survey-21-percent-americans-have-used-virtual-healthcare-78-percent-are-interested
3 https://www.mgma.com/practice-resources/mgma-connection-plus/online-only/2018/january/mgma-stat-poll-providers-slowly-adopted-telehealth-services-in-2017
4 https://www.hhnmag.com/articles/8350-telehealth-adoption-to-double-by-2018
5 https://www.healthdatamanagement.com/news/most-states-now-have-laws-supporting-telehealth-reimbursement
6 https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/849971
7 https://www.medicare.gov/coverage/telehealth.html
8 http://www.cchpca.org/telehealth-medicaid-state-policy
9 http://www.healthcareitnews.com/blog/virtual-visits-cutting-healthcare-costs
10 http://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20170210/NEWS/170219996
11 http://www.americantelemed.org/main/about/about-telemedicine/delivery-mechanisms

Author bio

Dr. Ken, Deloitte Consulting LLP, is a managing director in Deloitte’s Strategy practice and Deloitte’s Life Science and Health Care national physician executive. Ken is an anesthesiologist with more than 25 years of experience as a practicing physician and physician executive in academic medical centers and integrated delivery systems. Ken has market eminence as a physician leader and as a thought leader in clinical strategy, performance improvement, and clinical integration.