Organizations Utilize Virtual Health to Help Underserved Communities

The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the significant disparities in health care access and outcomes related to economic inequality. As in-person care has taken on new risk due to the COVID-19 crisis, an additional challenge of finding safe access to care has been created. While some patient communities can use virtual health to access care outside of traditional brick-and-mortar facilities, unfortunately the digital divide has prevented many underserved communities from realizing the same benefits.

Patients in underserved communities often do not have the requisite hardware, such as phones, tablets, computers with cameras, or software, nor do they have reliable, robust broadband to viably conduct virtual visits. To overcome these challenges, organizations are coming together through innovative partnerships to allow patients across all communities access to virtual health care.

An outstanding example is the Massachusetts Federally Qualified Health Center (MA FQHC) Telehealth Consortium, comprised of 28 community health centers who are leveraging technology to expand their reach. The health centers received $939,627 in Federal Communications Commission awards to provide physicians and patients with access to virtual health through phone calls and video platforms as well as connected thermometers and pulse oximeters for remote patient monitoring. Through these investments, the consortium aims to improve the management of chronic care patient populations and reduce the need for patients to enter the health centers during the current crisis.

In addition to utilizing virtual health platforms to deliver care, organizations are exploring how virtual health platforms support patients by addressing some of the social determinants of health. Healthfirst, a provider-owned insurer, recently launched an mHealth app that connects its 1.5 million members to virtual health services; medication management solutions; and information on housing, education and food assistance. These connections are critical, as two-thirds of the health plan’s member base is made up of Medicaid or Medicare patients.

In addition to adding Teladoc Health access to their platform to improve access to care to members, the Healthfirst platform made a significant impact by supporting patients in finding food. They included details for more than 450 food resources in the area as well as additional distribution sites. This support has proven critical as the pandemic has forced markets and pantries that historically served as food distribution centers to shut down. The platform also provides the opportunity to find essential services nearby including housing, education, employment, financial and legal assistance, and more. This type of comprehensive platform that provides access to care and supportive services for social determinants of health will be increasingly important as organizations move toward a more value-based strategy.

Additionally, FQHCs and Rural Health Centers are now managing an ever-growing number of underserved patients as the unemployment rate continues to rise; therefore, it is important that their offerings, including virtual health platforms, meet the needs of the patients they serve. Organizations may also need to undergo care redesign efforts to reimagine the patient journey. In order to do so, though, it is essential that organizations identify barriers to care through an in-depth understanding of patients’ lives.

While, of course, virtual health capabilities allow patients to overcome geographic barriers for appropriate levels of care, an overarching programmatic effort is also required when patients must travel a long distance to receive in-person care. For patients traveling a long distance to a health center for a wellness visit, organizations have taken pragmatic approaches to align additional services to be delivered in the same day. This could include behavioral health services, specialty care, and possibly even integrated supportive services, such as an educational specialist, accountant or family therapist. Through this type of efficient approach, services can be delivered in a patient-centric way that takes into account patients’ needs and challenges they face in traversing geographic distance to receive care.

As you scale your virtual health capabilities to support underserved communities, consider the following recommendations for long-term success:

  • Seek opportunities to partner with more sophisticated organizations to accelerate your organization’s virtual health capabilities and pursue your organization’s strategy in a cost-effective way. A viable initial area of partnership may be hospital at home, an initiative that incorporates both virtual and in-person care delivery. Chronic care patient populations could also be an initial area of focus, as reimbursement is more reliable and can provide the foundation for future success as organizations move toward more risk-based contracting.
  • Collaborate with local community and safety net hospitals to ensure that underserved communities are supported appropriately. Additionally, these organizations may be able to provide in-depth insights on positioning services to meet the unique needs of underserved patients. It also may be necessary to partner with local government officials, nonprofits or philanthropic organizations to invest in community resources, such as broadband infrastructure, to improve the viability of virtual health investments.
  • Explore alternative payment models to ensure sustainability of virtual health services that may not exclusively focus on health care services that are reimbursable.

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