Patients want telemedicine services. Is your health system answering the call?
Americans’ use of telehealth has grown rapidly in recent years, but there is still ample room for the technology to scale up as consumers increasingly demand convenient access to healthcare.
Between 2015 and 2019, the size of the U.S. telehealth services market has more than doubled to $2.3 billion, according to estimates from IbisWorld. Currently, 76% of U.S. hospitals connect with patients and consulting practitioners at a distance through the use of video and other technology, according to the American Hospital Association (PDF).
Consumer interest is also strong. Nearly 60% of consumers in U.S. broadband households are interested in interacting with medical professionals remotely for a variety of circumstances, including follow-up care, routine check-ups and treatment of a chronic condition, according to research from Parks Associates.
Telehealth began in the U.S. primarily as a means of connecting rural, underserved population to medical care, but its use cases have expanded in recent years. Today, the most frequent use cases for telehealth are patients who seek greater convenience, who are managing chronic conditions or have behavioral health issues, and patients who lack mobility or transportation to attend in-person office visits.
Health insurers have in recent years invested in telehealth services as a means of increasing member engagement and improving the patient experience. For low-acuity conditions, especially — such as allergies, bronchitis or minor skin irritation — telehealth represents a convenient, less costly option for improving access to care. Overall, payers continue to invest in telehealth to accomplish several goals, including mitigating provider shortages, expanding access to care, increasing patient satisfaction and reducing costs.
The following is a brief explanation of five ways health systems can improve overall performance through the adoption of telehealth services.
Patient demand for telehealth is rising for a number of reasons, most significantly because it represents a highly convenient way to access care, particularly for less complex conditions. Patients often turn to telehealth to obtain night or weekend visits with physicians and also for self-triage to determine whether to seek additional in-person care.
Much of telehealth’s expansion in the coming years will be driven by younger consumers who are the most dissatisfied age groups with the quality of traditional healthcare services, according to a recent survey from Accenture. As millennials and Generation Z begin to have children and experience a greater need for healthcare services, they will expect healthcare organizations to meet their expectations of effectiveness, convenience, efficiency and transparency.
The survey also revealed that healthcare consumers of all ages increasingly value digital capabilities from their providers. For example, 49% of consumers said they’d be more likely to choose a provider with whom they could communicate with video conferencing, up from 36% in 2016.
Telehealth can be a gateway to establishing relationships with new patients — especially those who don’t already have an affiliation. If patients have a good experience with one of your online providers, they will become more likely to turn to your health system for their other healthcare needs. Data from our health system partners indicate that an average of 10% of patients engaging in a virtual care consult have subsequently established a relationship with a physician from that health system.
As an additional point of access for patients, telehealth offers another channel for generating health system revenue. In some cases, revenue comes in the form of referrals to a health system following virtual visits for conditions that require more attention.
Further, additional opportunities exist to cut costs by moving low-acuity visits out of facilities to telehealth, which opens office appointments for higher-value, more complex cases. Health systems that are in the early stages of telehealth adoption should start by targeting patient populations that are at high risk for emergency department (ED) or urgent care visits. Keeping these patients out of high-cost care settings represents the lowest-hanging fruit for health systems to begin generating a return on their telehealth investments.
Cigna performed a study from 2014 to 2016, tracking 20,000 patients who used telehealth with the same number of patients who didn’t use telehealth but shared similar demographics. The results were impressive, with the telehealth cohort showing 17% lower medical costs, a 36% reduction in emergency utilization and 45% higher utilization of generics.
Offering telehealth is almost becoming a competitive imperative, given strong and increasing demand from consumers to obtain care when and where they want it. In addition to improving patient satisfaction and reducing leakage through the sheer convenience of telehealth, adopting virtual visits can help health systems via reduced wait times in the ED, urgent care and physician offices.
In the Parks Associates survey of patients who conducted virtual doctor visits by video, 70% or more rated the service as excellent or good for a variety of conditions. For health systems, one key to increasing satisfaction and reducing leakage is to offer virtual visits in whatever modality patients choose: video, email, text or a phone call, for example. One analysis from Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield found that consumers using telehealth save $100 on average based on time, mileage and avoided claims costs.
Telehealth’s first prominent adoption was inspired by the technology’s ability to reach underserved, rural populations. This group’s need for access to care has only grown more severe as rural hospitals continue to close. By drawing on the talents of physicians who generally practice in urban areas, telehealth opens up a range of new treatment options for communities that lack access to certain specialties or simply an adequate number of practicing physicians.
Just such a scenario played out in rural Rockingham County, North Carolina, a region that serves a largely uninsured and underinsured population, when a local clinic lost its only healthcare provider, leaving patients with few options. To avoid a potential crisis, Cone Health deployed a telehealth platform and trained staff at the facility to address low-acuity conditions, rather than requiring those patients to travel to the nearest ED for care.
Health systems that adopt telehealth platforms may consider partnering with local federally qualified health centers to reach out to underserved populations or setting up virtual kiosk-clinics in underserved neighborhoods.
As a digital platform that is built to enhance patient engagement and outreach, telehealth presents virtually unlimited opportunities to foster better communication with patients to discover, monitor, document and ultimately close care gaps. Leading telehealth platforms fully integrate with electronic health record systems to enable virtual-visit physicians to easily spot care gaps, such as a female patient who is overdue for a mammogram.
Telehealth is particularly effective for closing gaps in care for post-surgical patients, reducing the risk of readmissions and an extended recovery period. The technology also makes routine follow-ups for patients with chronic conditions easier and faster.
As consumer awareness of the convenience, quality and cost-effectiveness of virtual visits grows, so will consumer demand. Health systems that don’t investigate, adopt and scale up their use of telehealth platforms run the risk of losing patients to their competitors that do. Those that do embrace telehealth will discover new opportunities for clinical, operational and financial improvement.
Michael Farrell serves as senior vice president & general manager, Hospitals and Health Systems Business with MDLIVE. Michael’s responsibilities include accountability for the financials of the company, client relationships, satisfaction, marketing, utilization and business development efforts for all MDLIVE solutions and services in the health system and provider segment across the United States.
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