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Amid primary care's decentralization, consistency is key for retail and virtual health | Viewpoint


Retail clinics and virtual care providers have an immense opportunity to position themselves as central care hubs, Chris Sullivan of Wolters Kluwer Health writes.

Primary care looks far different today than 10 years ago, with the healthcare industry undergoing massive shifts.

Image: Wolters Kluwer Health

Chris Sullivan

Primary care clinics and hospitals struggle to keep up with demand amid staffing shortages, and healthcare's decentralization to new care settings and modalities is accelerating as a result. Amidst these shifts, technology promises to help providers in traditional and non-traditional clinical settings meet patients' demands.

Today's healthcare consumers prioritize convenience, cost, and experience, and the next wave of healthcare innovation is all about meeting these expectations for cost-effective and convenient care while maintaining a consistent, high-quality experience regardless of where and how that care is delivered—the doctor's office, a local pharmacy, a big box store, or an iPhone app.

Primary care is decentralizing to meet the needs of today's consumers

Patients are looking for options beyond traditional healthcare delivery, which remains plagued by complexity and long wait times. They are on a quest for convenience, and the overburdened healthcare system is struggling to deliver, with patients having to wait 26 days on average to schedule an appointment with a new physician.

As a result, primary care is rapidly decentralizing to keep up with patients' demands and provide them with access to more care options than ever before, empowering patients to navigate their care journeys independently.

Our Pharmacy Next survey found that nearly half of Americans visited a local pharmacy to receive care in the past year, and more than half see potential savings on medical expenses as an incentive to look beyond solely physician-credentialed providers for care. This research highlights that retail clinics and virtual care providers, in particular, play a significant role in primary care's decentralization and will become central players in healthcare as patients seek more cost-effective and convenient care.

Retail clinics and virtual care providers can improve equity, patient education, engagement, and experience

The pandemic propelled virtual care into the mainstream, with utilization trends showing it's here to stay. In addition, as much as 30% of the primary care market could go to non-traditional providers like retail pharmacies by 2030.

Given non-traditional providers' ability to help address many concerns around accessibility, convenience, and costs, it's unsurprising that patients are seeking these options. In today's digital and consumer-centric world, most patients have reliable internet to access care virtually or live within five miles of a pharmacy.

Being only a few clicks or miles away from patients, retail clinics and virtual care providers are uniquely suited to play an expanded role in healthcare and deliver highly personalized experiences that are inclusive of each patient's background. With this decentralization comes the need for greater collaboration and alignment across all healthcare entities to ensure patients receive quality experiences and outcomes regardless of where care is delivered.

As nearly 60% of Americans are likely to visit a local pharmacy as a first step when facing non-emergent medical issues, and more than 80% are comfortable with non-physicians diagnosing minor issues or prescribing treatments, pharmacists and virtual care providers have an opportunity to elevate their role in care delivery and management by offering new services such as care for common illnesses or minor ailments and administering vaccinations.

Additionally, they can build patient trust and loyalty through proactive education and engagement. Research shows that 94% of patients want reliable, educational resources as part of their care, and 68% are more likely to return to providers that offer educational materials.

Patient education resources based on relevant, evidence-based clinical content and available digitally can help inform treatment and improve adherence and satisfaction while building trust that non-traditional providers are essential partners in the patient's broader care team.

Consistency of care is key for the new healthcare ecosystem to address patient needs

The decentralization of primary care comes with its challenges, as it requires disparate healthcare organizations and systems to work in harmony, which has historically been an industry-wide challenge.

Even before healthcare started moving into non-traditional settings, patients moving from one provider to another too often resulted in care variability, inaccurate patient education, and inconsistent patient engagement, leading to worse outcomes, eroding patient trust, and decreasing treatment adherence.

Provider organizations, retail pharmacies, and virtual care companies must work together to improve care coordination and eliminate care variability throughout every touchpoint in the patient's healthcare journey. Achieving consistency across care settings is critical and relies on all care team members working harmoniously to deliver the same information and experience.

One way to achieve consistency, for example, is providing physicians, pharmacists, and nurses with a single source of evidence-based clinical content and the latest medical information, which empowers them to practice at the top of their credentials and make the best care decisions, no matter their background or specialty.

Non-traditional care settings are becoming central care hubs

Non-traditional care settings like retail clinics and virtual care providers have an immense opportunity to position themselves as central care hubs, and that starts with providing the same level of consistent care and experience patients expect from their providers in primary care, hospitals, and other traditional healthcare settings.

Patients should have confidence in their care wherever it is delivered and is most convenient. That requires everyone on the broader care team to align and collaborate to address patients' health needs.

When that happens, patients can be confident they're receiving the best care everywhere, no matter where that is, and never have to sacrifice quality for experience or vice versa.

Chris Sullivan is vice president and general manager of the commercial segment for clinical effectiveness at Wolters Kluwer Health.

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