The future of healthcare is efficient, effective… and surprisingly personal

Many of us first tried virtual care during the pandemic, often because we had no other choice. We connected with our primary care physicians about Covid and other health questions, holding our elbows and ears up to webcams to show where it hurts. This was Virtual Care 1.0, and it was little more than a doctor’s visit via video.

Not only did these early days of “doctors at a distance” meet our needs, but most of us found the experience convenient and time-saving. The vast majority of us are ready to use virtual care on a regular basis, and providers and insurers are poised to build on this wellspring of enthusiasm for telehealth: Virtual Care 2.0 is right around the corner.

Timely, specific, and personal

If you’ve ever stood in the rain trying to hail a cab, you may have wondered “why are there NO taxis?” What you didn’t know was that there were several cabs available at that very moment—just out of sight, just around the corner. The problem wasn’t a lack of taxis, but rather a lack of taxis where and when you needed them. Uber solved this problem by connecting customers and cabs instantly and at the exact location where a ride was needed. As customers and drivers came to understand the power of the model, new uses emerged, including UberEats and other “off-label” errand services.

Uber created a new category of service by leveraging inefficiencies in the transportation system. By creating a marketplace for drivers with idle cars or empty seats, they dramatically increased the convenience and efficiency of transport, while lowering the cost and improving satisfaction. Both drivers spirit riders have benefited. Uber’s story shows how virtual systems can connect people to real world services—and it serves as a powerful metaphor for the future delivery of healthcare via Virtual Care 2.0.

Not Just an Appointment by Video

Several platforms have emerged that strive to be the Uber of healthcare, but not all are made the same. Most continue to focus on urgent or primary care—replicating a traditional doctor’s visit via video. Such replication fails to leverage the true power of the technology and does little to mitigate megatrends in the healthcare marketplace:

  • Traditional doctor visits contain very little doctor time. The average hourlong appointment contains only 15-20 minutes of care from physicians. The rest of the appointment visit is filled with PA and nurse consultations, vitals collection, clerical needs, and (mostly) waiting. Often the “result” of a visit is a referral to a specialist, where after a long wait for an appointment, the cycle repeats.
  • The US faces a drought of doctors and nurses. As the shortage of health-care workers worsens over the next decade, wait times and scheduling delays will increase, putting patient health at risk. Gains in efficiency and organizational capacity are the only available methods for addressing this shortage in the near term.
  • Healthcare needs are growing. Aging Baby Boomers will burden our healthcare systems for at least the next two decades, and given their financial resources, they are likely to expand the market for innovative geriatric care and lifestyle medicine. To this trend, add a larger, long-term health crisis in America, signified by declining life expectancy. Finally, Covid-19 is likely only an early example in a future pattern of pandemics.

To address these industry challenges, improve efficiency, build capacity—and deliver better healthcare experiences—Virtual Care 2.0 must leverage patient enthusiasm for tech, exploring and inventing new models. The result will be an utter reshaping of the marketplace towards virtual specialty care.

Specialty care is the core of Virtual Care 2.0

By providing frictionless access to a network of specialist physicians, virtual specialty care can relieve pressure on physicians and speed access to high quality specialists. Assisted by technology that facilitates understanding of medical history and follow-up, virtual specialty care shifts the conversation from urgent care to longitudinal care, including lifestyle medicine. Specialists, connected directly to the patient, attuned to nuance, and supported with powerful information systems, can analyze a patient’s entire journey across any health topic, large or small, common or rare. Here’s how it works:

  1. Employers purchase membership in a virtual care network and provide access as an employment benefit; their employees are now “members” of the network.
  2. Most members first use virtual specialty care because they have a specific health question or concern. When connecting to a healthcare concierge on this first topic, they initiate a relationship with the network that can grow and deepen over time.
  3. The healthcare concierge fields the member’s query and leverages technology to identify a highly-skilled specialist physician.
  4. A consultation with the specialist physician is scheduled within days—and sometimes, hours—of the initial member inquiry. The healthcare concierge may also help the member prepare for the consultation, guiding them to assemble medical records and imagery the specialist might need—and even coaching members to formulate meaningful questions for the physician.
  5. Follow-up conversations are scheduled, introducing the member to the benefits of longitudinal care, lifestyle medicine, and other telehealth opportunities that arise from a sustained relationship with the network.

The efficiency of this model is a win for everyone involved:

  • Patients see the right doctors sooner, which results in better health outcomes. On one network, 52% of patients changed their approach to treatment based on physician guidance gained through virtual specialty care.
  • Employers who offer virtual specialty care as a benefit see a healthier, happier, more productive workforce with fewer sick days. In addition, they see dramatic savings in healthcare costs as a result of quicker, more accurate diagnosis. Specialty care platforms have provided up to $7,150 in average savings per member engagement, resulting in a 3:1 return on investment.
  • Physicians get to spend more time with patients. With the average patient engagement lasting 44 minutes, physicians can spend more time with each patient directly listening and engaging.

Managing the entire journey

Virtual Care 2.0 will restore the human connection between patients and the collective wisdom of the medical community. Using new tools, patients and specialists will collaborate to quickly identify healthcare challenges and map out a journey towards well-being.

Virtual specialty care networks may provide the sort of longitudinal healthcare relationship we haven’t seen since the era of house calls and doctors’ bags—benefiting patients and physicians alike. Employers, who sponsor virtual specialty care for their employees, will see a happier, more productive workforce, higher retention, and reduced costs.

Photo: Feodora Chiosea, Getty Images

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