Mission incomplete: Still a long road ahead for virtual care
Telehealth has been the darling industry of 2020. The silver lining in an unprecedented pandemic, it’s rapidly becoming an incredible catalyst for evolving healthcare as we know it.
This is our moment! We’ve finally changed hearts and minds about what we’ve been championing for the last ten years. As an industry, we’ve collectively shepherded our virtual care technologies into mainstream adoption, made regulators take notice of policy barriers and introduce changes, and secured record funding for our disruptive businesses.
But have we really climbed the mountain and planted our virtual care flag atop the peak? What mountains do we have yet to climb, and what lies in our path?
Now is not the time to be congratulating ourselves for a challenging 7-month trek. We are at a fork in the road, and while there is no going back, the path we choose to take as an industry could either hold the potential for lasting transformation or lead us on a circular, stagnant journey.
While exciting, this is a humbling moment for us all in digital healthcare — a moment to address what’s still missing in our market, our healthcare systems, our regulations, and our approach to reimagining care delivery.
To move from telehealth adoption to sustainability, from episodic to longitudinal virtual care, let’s keep our self-praise in check and instead take a hard look in the mirror at our industry.
Recently I hosted a discussion on what’s missing in virtual care with three women I admire in the digital health space. While inspiring, it got me thinking further on where our industry needs to go and the roadblocks we ourselves may be solidifying through a comfortable reliance on outdated, pre-pandemic thinking.
I challenge you to consider three healthcare paradigm shifts within our new normal that will facilitate forward momentum.
1. As companies, are we truly “empowering and engaging patients?” Or are patients the ones taking ownership of their own health and guiding when and how they want to be engaged with?
I believe our view of ourselves has been too self-serving. We, as healthcare companies, aren’t giving patients the power, consumers are taking it upon themselves to speak with their wallets, their devices, and their time, to inform where healthcare should move.
It’s our responsibility as companies, systems, incumbents, and startups to translate their needs and enable patients with the technology, infrastructure, and information to make the best decisions about how and when to receive care.
As both digital healthcare innovators and patients ourselves, it’s in our own best interest to stop, listen, and evaluate where consumers are spending money, how and within which modalities consumers are choosing to engage, and how we can best support those decisions.
And yes, patients are consumers.
Looking over past article headlines in regards to healthcare consumers, the shift is blatantly clear.
- From 2015: Let’s stop pretending consumers will shop for healthcare.
- From 2017: Patients are not consumers, but who is?
- From 2018: There are no consumers in healthcare, get over it.
These headlines have not aged well. With the rise of digital-first interactions permeating nearly all industries, healthcare users are most definitely consumers, and shifting towards this mindset is the only way to keep patient and clinician best interests at the heart of our technology innovations, policy initiatives, and business models.
2. Should virtual care really “own” healthcare’s front door? And what happens behind the front door as patients move from room to room?
Ultimately, virtual care is one setting of many that healthcare consumers can and will use to access healthcare. But we need to recognize as an industry that virtual care is not always the gatekeeper.
In many, and perhaps most, interactions, a phone will be the first touchpoint for a patient. Whether it’s to research a condition or symptoms, to make an appointment, or to ultimately access care virtually. But virtual care is still one of many care modalities that patients themselves can choose to engage with. And virtual care is not always the appropriate initial option.
In addition, the experiences patients receive in virtual care settings must translate across care settings and contribute in an additive manner to their health and treatment journey.
In practice, this looks like singular, shared patient history views, data transfer across healthcare modalities, and collaboration among all types of healthcare providers. As companies, we must build solutions with a holistic view of the care experience, recognizing that patient care is complex and doesn’t end at the completion of our brief digital engagement. To truly deliver better outcomes, we must revere our digital touchpoint as an opportunity to cultivate relationships, building upon patient trust throughout the care journey.
3. Are our technologies actually increasing access to care or exacerbating existing inequalities and inequities?
As technology companies, we look to usage data to inform product iterations and new services. But when we consider new development, are we really keeping access at the core of what we create?
The pandemic has increased adoption of digital technologies among laggard populations, but we still aren’t providing care to everyone who needs it. Our current user base may be leaving out those with bandwidth issues, socioeconomic groups that can’t afford a smartphone or data plan, or simply the digitally illiterate.
If we focus too much on existing users of our digital healthcare tools, are we leaving other critical populations behind and omitting their needs and use cases of our services?
We must find ways to reach and serve all patient populations and vulnerabilities without further deepening the digital divide and imbalancing care access to only those more fortunate, more urban, or more literate. Technology must improve our relationship with patients, not exclude them.
And above all, we must continue to push our legislators for lasting changes to state regulations that have historically limited virtual care access by constricting access points and limiting modalities.
This is the only way we can fully achieve better care outcomes for all.
While we “can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” the meteoric rise in virtual care isn’t guaranteed to sustain this level of adoption unless we address what’s still missing in our market, in our healthcare systems, in our regulations, and in our approach to re-imagining care delivery.
Sure, let’s take a moment for a virtual “cheers” and pat on the back — we’ve all worked tirelessly these past 6 or 7 months — and truthfully for the past several decades. But let’s also push ourselves to reevaluate our success, and consider what it will take to climb the next mountain, together.