Virtual Health Is an Essential Asset Now and for the Future

Editor’s Note: Sg2 Principal Rebecca Limestall contributed to this edition of the Virtual Health Newsletter.

For many years, Sg2 has been anticipating a dramatic shift that would move digital health to become a centerpiece of health care delivery. It was initially anticipated this shift would be driven by large tech firms and nontraditional entrants to the market; unfortunately, it was a pandemic crisis that has accelerated disruption that will upend the market.

Moreover, this transformation is not occurring over years as expected—it is occurring over weeks. In response to this rapid development, hospitals and health systems have adopted, deployed and scaled a variety of virtual health solutions. Correspondingly, regulators have recognized the value provided by these digital solutions and have removed restrictions and supported the utilization of these virtual health capabilities.

As we enter into a new paradigm of delivering care, it is critical for organizations to balance the immediate needs of the organization with the long-term strategy of their virtual health program. For organizations to build a successful virtual health program to provide value today, during the recovery phase and in a post–COVID-19 landscape, they must focus on 5 key areas: virtual urgent care clinics, virtual primary care, virtual ambulatory care, teleconsults and remote patient monitoring. These areas have found traction across many organizations; however, moving forward they will be core assets in the new care paradigm that organizations will need to embrace to remain relevant and viable.

Virtual Urgent Care Clinics
  • Today: This capability is being utilized to triage patients rapidly and determine which may remain in their homes and which actually require in-person care.
  • Tomorrow: Virtual urgent care clinics will be absolutely essential as patients, having seen urgent care be delivered virtually, quickly and conveniently during the COVID-19 crisis, will demand organizations take a similar approach to a broader range of care.
Virtual Primary Care
  • Today: Virtual primary care clinics are providing ongoing primary care to patients without risking their exposure to COVID-19.
  • Tomorrow: As patients demand more streamlined access to care, virtual health will be critical to the continued evolution and redesign of primary care.
Virtual Ambulatory Care
  • Today: Organizations are experiencing extraordinarily high cancellation rates, often upwards of 50% or higher. This, along with the cancellation of most elective surgeries, has left many hospitals and health systems in a dire financial position. Particularly progressive organizations, though, are proactively shifting upwards of 80% of their ambulatory visit volumes to virtual visits, stemming the losses that they will experience in the short run.
  • Tomorrow: This capability will be essential to organizations facing significant financial pressure. Virtual health capabilities allow care to be delivered at a lower cost point when structured correctly in comparison to brick-and-mortar based in-person visits. Hospitals and health systems will need to be focused on margin management moving forward to make up ground coming out of the current crisis.
  • Today: This capability allows specialists to provide access to specialty care at a distance, as well as to reduce exposure of frontline providers.
  • Tomorrow: Teleconsults will continue to be a vital resource in increasing access to specialty care. While this will be important across many specialties, it will be particularly critical to increasing access to infectious disease and mental health specialists.
Remote Patient Monitoring
  • Today: Remote patient monitoring capabilities are being used to manage patients who are experiencing mild symptoms related to COVID-19 exposure but do not require in-person care. The FDA has cleared select devices to be used to monitor patients’ vital signs remotely in support of reducing exposure to COVID-19, including devices that measure body temperature, respiratory rate, heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Tomorrow: In parallel to an expanding aging patient population who increasingly are seeking to age independently, remote patient monitoring devices will be essential in proactively managing chronic care patient populations.

Moving forward, hospitals and health systems must reevaluate their digital health capabilities and determine their virtual health strategy. Shifting these capabilities from crisis investments to a viable virtual health program requires several programmatic elements. Establishing a virtual health governance structure, investing in digital infrastructure, and incorporating various operational design elements are important steps toward establishing a sustainable digital health program.

Now and in the future, organizations will need to focus on the following areas to establish virtual health as a core capability:

  • Reevaluate how the shift toward virtual will impact the significant brick-and-mortar investments your organization has made. This may require repurposing current office clinic space into space to support virtual health assets. It may also require reexamining long-term strategies that were focused on acquiring additional physical space.
  • Ensure that your organization is appropriately equipped to utilize the massive data sets that will come from this increase in virtual health utilization to inform clinical decision making moving forward.
  • Invest in your organization’s data security capabilities. As virtual health becomes increasingly core to care delivery, it will be critical to balance the benefits that it is able to deliver and the need for patient privacy. This balance will become more important as broad public monitoring utilizing phone location data and antibody testing raises patients’ focus on patient data and privacy.

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