Insights

Virtual Visits in Healthcare: The Past, Present, and Future 

Kathryn Austin, Director, Center for Consumerism, AVIA

virtual visits in healthcare

Before the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the digital needs of the healthcare industry, 0.01% of visits were delivered virtually. Virtual visits were a supplementary strategy for health systems, and they were not heavily relied upon or frequently used. COVID-19 rapidly changed that. In 2020, the number of consumers who had a virtual visit tripled to 22%, and 80% of physicians completed a virtual visit.

With many providers operating at a limited capacity during the pandemic, asynchronous and synchronous virtual visits became essential for health systems to offer care to patients. Synchronous visits involve the healthcare provider and patient talking in real-time over video, phone, or chat. Asynchronous visits allow patients and physicians to communicate based on their own schedules, without necessarily needing to be on video. Patients can communicate symptoms and send data or medical imaging to the provider to review through email, text messaging, apps, or an online portal. 

While virtual visits faced tough regulatory hurdles before the pandemic, a shift in regulations during COVID-19 made it easier for health systems to treat patients virtually, with post-pandemic regulations evolving as well. 

After COVID-19, 92% of providers and 76% of consumers report they plan on continuing to use virtual visits. According to an AVIA survey of health systems, 56% of participants are exploring additional synchronous visit capabilities, both now and in the future. As health systems look to make virtual visits a core component of their care delivery model, it’s important to consider existing barriers, “what good looks like” in a post-COVID world, and how virtual visits in healthcare could evolve in the future.

Now: What are the challenges surrounding virtual visits in healthcare?

Health systems currently face both operational and clinical challenges in delivering virtual visits. These include providing technical support, determining the right modalities, care models, and staffing models, and navigating reimbursement regulations. Asynchronous visits have not been widely adopted even during the pandemic, due in part to patients typically expecting e-visits to be video meetings, not text messages or communicating through an app.

Additionally, health systems face competition from payers, employers, and big tech companies offering their own versions of telehealth services directly to consumers. Systems looking to compete with those new entrants must offer the same, if not better, virtual care options to consumers in a financially sustainable way. 27% of health systems expect to lower the cost of virtual visits to be below the costs of in-person visits. 

Patient support also becomes increasingly challenging for high-acuity patients who present challenging medical conditions and unpredictable needs, as they often require consistent monitoring. Additional barriers include technology access, EHR database compatibility with the health system, internet connectivity challenges, and difficulty diagnosing patients without an in-person examination.  

Now: What does a successful virtual visit program look like?

To effectively provide virtual care and overcome the issues outlined above, health systems must utilize three virtual capabilities: triage, navigate, and treat. 

Virtual triage enables consumers to search for symptoms and browse suggested diagnoses. Ideally, patients are guided to engage with the health system based on their symptoms. When done effectively, triage allows health systems to provide the right care to the right patient at the right time. 

Care navigation helps consumers select from an inventory of providers and services based on location and cost, as well as provider availability. Patients can easily transition between reviewing symptoms in triage to finding a provider to engaging in asynchronous and synchronous visits. 

Finally, effective treatment through virtual visits relies on synchronous and asynchronous care. Pre-COVID, up to 30% of providers’ ambulatory capacity could go unused. Leading health systems are now utilizing virtual visits to maximize providers’ time and reduce cost. Asynchronous visits present care opportunities with fewer resources and eliminate the possibility of a missed in-person appointment. Synchronous visits allow physicians to conduct an examination and diagnosis similar to an in-office visit while diverting patients from more expensive care settings

Now: How have virtual visits improved during COVID-19?

Demand increased during COVID for synchronous virtual visits, and leading health systems recognized and filled the need for multilingual, accessible, and omnichannel visits for both patients and their families. 

Virtual waiting rooms, which allow patients to check into appointments and complete necessary paperwork, are vital to the virtual visit process. Prior to starting the actual visits, support staff can educate patients about technology use and guide them through technology issues. The average consumer may not be experienced with video visits, so seeing a queue and setting up technology before the encounter is vital.

Future: How will virtual visits in healthcare evolve?

In September and October, 75% of systems surveyed conducted at least 10% of their primary care visits virtually and 50% of systems had at least 10% of their specialty care visits virtually. 

Surveyed health systems speculate that in 2021 their specialty care virtual visits will increase and they’ll maintain their primary care rate from 2020. To support that, 47% of systems expect to replace their current synchronous virtual visits digital solution. Additionally, over half of the health systems surveyed are developing 3-5 year virtual health roadmaps, hiring new team members to support virtual health programming, and creating new roles to support clinical and admin functions.

Future: Strategic questions to ask when creating your virtual visits strategy

As your organization begins planning for the future of virtual visits, it’s essential to consider the following questions when creating your strategy: 

  • What are your organization’s virtual health goals, and how will you measure ROI?
  • What is the ideal consumer, provider, and staff experience for virtual visits at your health system?
  • How do you optimize current virtual health workflows for sustainability and scale?
  • What are key levers to determine the best staffing models and configurations?
  • How do you prioritize amongst various emerging care and access models
  • How can you optimize and scale digital solution(s) to meet your needs, business drivers, and key criteria?

If your health system wants to become a leader in the virtual visits space, AVIA can help. Our experts have partnered with over 50 health systems to guide them through implementing virtual visits during COVID-19 and beyond. To learn more, talk to an expert today or join our virtual visits workshop series to build a strategic virtual health plan with peers. 

 

Madison Daum, Marketing Intern, contributed to this post.