What is digital care’s destination? 4 Predictions for 2021 and Beyond

Covid-19 sparked a revolution in virtual care in 2020, with telehealth accounting for an estimated 70 to 80% of care during the height of the pandemic.

Few predicted the surge in virtual care in 2020, and the bulk of providers, payers and employers weren’t ready for it. Prior to the pandemic, only 24% of U.S. healthcare organizations had an existing telehealth program. Even with the federal government easing barriers to entry, concerns around telehealth coverage loomed large. As patients navigated virtual interfaces for the first time, many wondered if remote care would even work.

Fast forward to 2021, and it’s clear that virtual care will remain a fundamental aspect of healthcare delivery, even as the coronavirus pandemic wanes.

Now, providers, payers and employers must consider their long-term strategies for care delivery: Where is digital innovation headed — and how should it be incorporated into member benefits for a patient-centric, value-added experience?

Here are four ways that digital health, and virtual care specifically, will take shape in 2021:

Trend 1: Demand for ‘on demand’ services will grow
It wasn’t so long ago that virtual care encompassed a handful of successful use cases, such as stroke, with neurologists conducting remote assessments of patients in rural hospitals for faster diagnosis and treatment. But in 2019 and 2020, the breadth of virtual services available on demand expanded. In the wake of the pandemic, hospitals and ambulatory practices were forced to think outside of the parameters of their brick-and-mortar establishments and transition at least some care to the virtual realm.

In 2021, virtual-savvy consumers have already warmed up to on-demand consultations with behavioral health providers, internists, pediatricians, and more — even if they previously had shied away from remote encounters. Healthcare providers that don’t adapt could see their business impacted in coming months.

Trend 2: Personalization will influence engagement
Pre-2020, the ability to connect virtually with any healthcare provider in a particular discipline was sufficient. But with the vast majority of healthcare providers now offering some kind of virtual-care option for patients, telehealth on its own is no longer a differentiator or unique value-add. According to a 2020 Amwell survey, 92% of physicians said they plan to incorporate telehealth into care post-Covid even when it is safe to see patients in person. Further, the percentage of specialists who are willing to use telehealth rose sharply, doubling in high-volume specialties such as radiology, cardiology, and surgery. This increases the chances that consumers can schedule virtual appointments with an existing primary care provider or specialist.

We’ve also seen a shift in consumer telehealth behavior. While telehealth was once thought of as a path for urgent care transactions, in 2020, more consumers had scheduled video visits with their primary care physician or specialist than for urgent care. And in the convergence of consumerized medicine with virtual care, most patients believe they’re entitled to their choice of healthcare providers, coverage and digital-health experiences.

In this environment, health systems will need to rethink their approach to patient engagement, embracing new ideas like condition-specific virtual coaching for managing chronic disease. Physicians will need to check their ‘webside’ manner, while payers will need to forge relationships with telehealth providers who are experts in their field, such as cardiology, neurology or geriatric counseling. If care doesn’t feel personalized and specialized, patients will look elsewhere.

Trend 3: Technology will normalize VIP access to health experts.
One of the key benefits of virtual care, especially for high-needs patients, is access to leading physicians and specialists anytime, anywhere. For example, virtual care programs that pull together members of a patient’s care team and facilitate back-to-back “visits” are saving patients with Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) time and stress.

With advances in technology, patients are also demanding greater access to these physician rock stars.

As such, the market for virtual second opinion for life-altering diagnoses, such as cancer, is increasing significantly, projected to reach $7 billion by 2024, up from $2.7 billion in 2019. When treatment plans are reviewed by an expert, 72% of treatment plans are modified after analysis, according to one recent study. If experts can be accessed by any patient, any time, more patients will seek second opinions to ensure they receive the most appropriate care and treatment.

Trend 4: Virtual chronic care management will grow
In the shift to virtual care post-Covid-19, we saw patients skip or postpone face-to-face encounters, from elective surgeries to annual wellness visits. What that meant was that the patients who needed care the most (like seniors 65+) missed out on lab work, testing and/or diagnostic services, raising their risk of unchecked medical problems. In 2021, acute and urgent care is back, but physicians are looking beyond episodic, face-to-face interactions to a more holistic model of care. The shift to a hybrid approach that incorporates both in-person and virtual encounters is well underway.

Many providers who were slow to embrace CMS’ chronic care management (CCM) benefit — which enables providers to be reimbursed for non-face-to-face encounters for patients with two or more comorbidities — have warmed up to it. With the right remote monitoring devices, telehealth platforms and patient buy-in, virtual chronic care management can improve quality and outcomes while supporting a more collaborative environment.

Embracing Tech and Virtual Care
While Covid-19 changed the perception of virtual care, we’ve only begun to unearth the possibilities for remote health technologies and see the bigger picture around digital health. As healthcare providers and other stakeholders tighten their focus on value-based care, virtual and digital technology will continue to offer new solutions for longstanding challenges in 2021 and beyond.

Photo: Feodora Chiosea, Getty Images

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