After becoming more familiar with telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing number of consumers today are realizing the value and convenience of virtual visits for minor urgent issues, chronic disease management, and mental health services.
At the same time, an overwhelming majority of consumers believe it is important that both their regular doctor and their telehealth provider have access to their health records for sharing critical data such as current medications, chronic health conditions, and other past medical history.
Those were two of the major takeaways from an October 2022 consumer survey [link to release] that examined patient preferences and experiences related to telehealth. Additionally, the survey found that 90% of respondents had engaged in a telehealth visit during the prior year, and 92% said that if a need arises within the next year, they would be somewhat or very likely to utilize telehealth services if offered by their current health system.
The findings of this survey and many others are building a set of data points influencing how health systems should shape the future of their telehealth strategy. For example, a recent study from the Business Group on Health discussed the importance of integrating virtual and in-person care for telehealth to reach its full potential in benefitting patient care. And who is better served than health systems to deliver on this need? To help define what could be done next, the Business Group on Health study offered a host of recommended actions that stakeholders can take to fulfill this promise of virtual health integrated with in-person care.
Those recommendations include: creating a framework to understand patients’ virtual health needs, monitoring consumer experiences, ensuring virtual care expands health care access, forming partnerships to optimize different areas of expertise, maintaining easy-to-understand patient communication, and measuring outcomes of virtual health offerings.
For health systems, the message is loud and clear: They need to expand access to telehealth – and the care must be delivered in a manner that both creates a seamless patient experience and supports easy data liquidity so that key information is shared between a patient’s regular care team and their virtual care providers.
Here are a few more insights from the consumer survey:
Robust data-sharing is critical for telehealth success. Consumers overwhelmingly want their regular doctors and Virtualists to share data more closely, with 79% of them saying this functionality was “very important” to them. However, while the concept seems simple, this level of data availability has not been historically easy to accomplish.
Here’s why: To expand the availability of virtual care, some health systems contract with third-party telehealth platforms and providers. Unfortunately, this creates a discontinuous experience that frustrates both patients and providers and compromises the quality of care because clinical data is not easily shared.
A better approach would instead involve a partnership with a virtual care provider that utilizes an electronic health records (EHR) platform that fully integrates with the health system’s EHR. This connection creates a more seamless experience for the patient and supports the bi-directional sharing of clinical data so that all care team members have access to the critical patient information they need to optimize care and outcomes.
Telehealth is for much more than urgent care. In the consumer survey, the majority of patients preferred telehealth for minor but urgent issues, and in fact, only about one-third of consumers said they’d prefer an in-office visit for those issues. But it is important to note that telehealth is a top choice for other care needs as well.
For the routine management of chronic conditions, 46% of survey participants said telehealth was the preferred option, and nearly 43% ranked telehealth as their top choice for mental health services or therapy. Telehealth holds special promise in helping the health care industry improve outcomes for patients with chronic disease as it combines remote patient monitoring with rules-based activities that can be done very easily from a virtual environment, helping ensure easier and quicker access for patients.
Consider, for example, that many patients’ chronic diseases are not well controlled, and only 50% of patients with chronic medical conditions actually take their medications as prescribed, according to a study in The International Journal of Cardiology and Hypertension. Reasons for non-adherence vary, but much can be attributed to poor health literacy, lack of involvement in the decision-making process, and patient and provider confusion on what medications a patient might actually be taking, particularly after a hospital stay.
Telehealth holds several advantages over in-office visits for chronic disease management, according to the study, including:
- Medication reconciliation can be done virtually with medication bottles or pill dispensers on hand
- Family members can more easily participate in visits to hear what is discussed, increasing health literacy for the entire family
- Patient education can be focused and frequently reinforced due to the ability to have frequent visits
- Much of the paternalism of sitting quietly in an office and being told what to do by a physician is eliminated when patients feel more comfortable in their own homes
And we are now seeing demonstrable proof that patients receiving care via telehealth have comparable outcomes compared to in-office care, as demonstrated by a recent randomized trial of more than 3,000 hypertension patients across 21 primary care clinics in Minnesota and Wisconsin. This study compared outcomes for two groups of patients with moderately severe, uncontrolled high blood pressure – those who obtained traditional, clinic-based care and those who received virtual care. Researchers concluded that both visit types were successful for lowering blood pressure, and there was no significant difference in the change over time in blood pressure between the two groups.
In addition, a 2021 study by University of Rochester researchers found that telehealth has boosted access to care “for a wide range of clinical conditions ranging from stroke to pregnancy.” The authors of the study, which was published in The Annual Review of Public Health, concluded that telemedicine has proven capable of improving access for underserved patient populations, especially in rural areas.
Patients are clearly embracing virtual care and appreciate the convenience and cost-effectiveness that telehealth provides for a variety of care needs. As demand for virtual visits grows and health systems consider how to partner with virtualist groups to expand their capacity, they should ensure they are able to meet consumer preferences by finding a partner that supports a seamless patient experience and bi-directional data sharing between patients’ regular doctors and virtual care providers. This will allow them to widen their digital front door to decrease the load on their office-based teams while increasing access for patients in a convenient and safe manner.
Lyle Berkowitz is a physician executive.