October 21, 2020
A virtual care platform is a telemedicine platform that enables clinicians and patients to connect remotely via video conferencing, remote monitoring, electronic consults, and wireless communications through various devices, such as mobile devices and TV/computer screens. It also enables online scheduling and more effective electronic health record (EHR) management.
The virtual healthcare delivery market is growing at an astounding rate, driven largely by the COVID-19 pandemic where safe, in-person provider-patient engagement has been severely limited. The global market size in 2019 was approximately $21 billion. It is now forecasted to reach $95 billion worldwide and nearly $78 billion domestically by 2026.
With more facilities and practices adopting virtual care and as providers and patients both realize the benefits of virtual care, most experts believe the alternative care delivery model is here to stay. With the pandemic still in our midst and as warnings of resurgences continue, having a telehealth capability is becoming less of a “nice-to-have” and more of a requirement.
With competition mounting as more players enter the market, there are fewer barriers to entry for virtual healthcare, even for the smallest private practices.
The rise in telehealth adoption is well-documented. The American Hospital Association (AHA) reports the use of telehealth in hospitals has grown rapidly, from 35 percent in 2010 to 76 percent in 2017. Now that Medicaid covers telehealth services in most states, more people have access.
COVID-19 has accelerated this adoption considerably. Findings from a research study found in the US Library of Medicine from the National Institute of Health suggest virtual care platforms are changing how healthcare is delivered, saying, “Telemedicine should be adopted as a proactive measure to improve medical care and should not only be seen as a temporary fix in times of emergency; rather, it is a convenient, safe, scalable, effective, and green method of providing medical care.” Further, the author says, “Findings suggest that telemedicine and virtual software are capable of decreasing emergency room visits, safeguarding healthcare resources, and lessening the spread of COVID-19 by remotely treating patients during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.”
For hospital systems, adopting a virtual care platform not only expands capacity, but it can also deliver value in other ways. For instance, telehealth gives hospitals access to specialists and experts outside of the hospital setting. When hospitals can bring these professionals into their patient rooms virtually, there is less risk for the patient going outside of the hospital system to seek care.
Virtual care also enables hospitals to tend to and treat high-acuity patients much faster. Patients spend less time waiting for a provider when a telephysician can often diagnose and begin treating patients within minutes of arrival. This responsiveness leads to improved patient outcomes that then results in greater patient satisfaction.
Another advantage of telehealth is that it allows hospitals to deliver a more complete continuum of patient care, again, leading to better patient outcomes. With telemedicine, hospitals can care for patients throughout their journey, from initial diagnosis through at-home recovery and medication management. By offering telephysician specialists along each step, hospitals can play a pivotal role in helping patients recover faster with fewer readmissions.
Emergency rooms are notorious for long wait times. Depending on the day, time of day, and presenting circumstance, patients can wait 3-4 hours on average to get treatment. These long wait times directly impact the health of the patients, even motivating some patients to either not seek treatment at all or leave the emergency department without being treated.
If hospitals use a multi-tenant platform, they can equip their emergency departments with telehealth capabilities using the same virtual care platform they have in the main hospital. By doing so, hospitals with limited resources can provide remote consultation services in their emergency rooms, particularly when waiting rooms become crowded.
Many emergency departments are leveraging telehealth to safely and efficiently screen patients before they make a trip to the emergency room. In one study that compared in-person screening with telemedicine screening, it was found that telescreening decreased the rate of patients who left the emergency room without being seen from 25.1 percent to just 4.5 percent.
During the peaks of the COVID-19 pandemic, telemedicine has proved invaluable in the emergency room. In “Telemedicine is proving to be a key piece of protective equipment for emergency departments” by The Center for Health Journalism, the author explains the role telemedicine plays when patients come to the emergency room:
“If they require immediate care for COVID-19, they are taken at once into an isolation room in the emergency department where providers can treat them. If not, a medical assistant or nurse will give them a mask, check their oxygen level, and, if they appear stable, direct them to a private video screen. In a video chat, a doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant will evaluate them for possible COVID-19 or unrelated conditions. Within seconds of the video call, a very sick patient could be rushed into an isolation room inside the emergency department. But less ill patients could receive further testing in the [outdoor] tent and head home – all without ever seeing a doctor in person.”
The telemedicine capability that a virtual care platform enables not only ensures patients receive the fastest care possible, but that providers can be better protected from patients who may be infected with the virus.
Urgent care clinics are growing in popularity, offering ill or injured patients a fast, convenient and often less expensive option when seeking care. The Urgent Care Association found that the total number of urgent care centers in the US was up eight percent in 2018 over 2017. According to their 2018 Benchmarking Report, more than 70 percent of patients waited less than 20 minutes to see a provider at an urgent care center, and nearly 94 percent were seen in less than 30 minutes.
As impressive as those numbers are, telemedicine is giving these clinics even better response rates and expanding their capabilities by providing access to virtual specialists, as well as to providers during weekends, after-hours, and holidays. Increased patient volume is helping urgent care clinics to reduce costs while increasing market share and generating more revenue.
Ambulatory care, also known as outpatient care, is also on the rise. Ambulatory care facilities offer preventative healthcare, diagnosis that includes imagine and labs; treatment that may involve same-day surgeries; chemotherapy and other forms of therapy; and rehabilitation — all outside of the hospital setting.
With a virtual care platform, ambulatory care facilities can evaluate patient needs remotely in order to prioritize care, collaborate virtually with the patient and other providers, educate and monitor patients after treatment, assist in self-management of chronic diseases and disabilities, provide care coordination, and more. Patients can remain connected with caregivers while recovering at home.
The American Medical Association (AMA) “strongly encourages” private practice physicians to invest in a virtual care platform to deliver telemedicine services to patients. While COVID-19 precipitated the recommendation, the AMA is quick to point out that telehealth can also address opportunities or challenges practices are faced with on a regular basis.
More private practices than ever are adopting telemedicine. The AMA estimates as many as 90 percent of physicians are now using some sort of telehealth service since COVID-19 began. For physicians, telehealth allows them to deliver quality care in a safe manner, providing patients with greater convenience and practices with additional revenue stream and greater patient satisfaction ratings.
In fact, patients are demanding telehealth services from their providers. An Accenture survey found that 90 percent of patients say that telehealth delivers the same or better care than in-person visits, and 60 percent want to continue using telemedicine services after COVID-19 to communicate with their healthcare providers and manage their conditions.
Providers can use virtual telehealth tools, such as videoconferencing, and online chat and apps, to evaluate and diagnose many patients, provide a treatment plan, prescribe medications and therapies, order labs and imaging, answer patient questions, and follow up with care in a more personalized way. The survey found that 47 percent of respondents said they received better, more personalized responses from their providers through telemedicine, and 60 percent said their trust in their healthcare providers increased with telemedicine.
Clearly, a virtual care platform is giving providers at every level a new way to connect with and treat patients and patients are appreciating the innovation. As telehealth continues to grow and become a healthcare mainstay, investing in a scalable solution will be critical. The applications for virtual care are limitless and providers who embrace the capabilities will reap the rewards.
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