How the hybrid future of telemedicine may play out

How the hybrid future of telemedicine may play out

Photo: Philips

In the last few years, care delivery has undergone a major transformation – from nearly 100% in-person to nearly 100% virtual during the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, the healthcare industry has started to reach a consensus that the future of telemedicine will be a hybrid of virtual and in-person care.

While virtual care’s widespread adoption will certainly help providers offer more proactive care in lower cost settings and decrease the need for regular in-person visits, it is not an end-all-be-all solution.

In the year to come, there will be more training to define at what point a patient needs to be seen in person to not only provide effective care, but to keep them engaged in their own care journey, contends Kristin Molina, business leader for patient engagement and healthcare analytics at Philips.

Healthcare IT News interviewed Kristin to get her expertise on the subject of the future of telemedicine and hybrid care.

Q. How has healthcare arrived at a hybrid approach combining in-person care and virtual care?

A. Despite virtual care’s prevalence during the pandemic, it is by no means a new concept. While it has existed for decades to some degree, it was a tool that was viewed as optional. Between generally apprehensive patients and providers and hindering reimbursement policies, virtual care faced sluggish adoption until March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic opened many eyes to its inherent value.

As soon as the pandemic started, demand for virtual care surged and it became a critical tool for delivering care to patients with acute and chronic illnesses. It was now imperative for healthcare organizations to not only quickly adopt this technology, but also adapt to an option that allows patients to access medical care without being at risk of getting infected.

This led to healthcare organizations scrambling to respond to shifting care needs and supplement their in-person care strategies, and vendors quickly maturing their solutions so they could be used effectively at scale.

However, there were stages of the pandemic where the sense of urgency began to slow and it was at this point when healthcare organizations started rethinking their virtual care strategy with a more permanent lens – asking themselves what the right balance is between in-person and virtual care.

As the adoption of virtual care expands and takes a more permanent position, it has become increasingly important to determine how to best incorporate this new delivery method into our consumer-driven healthcare ecosystem.

We now are in a position where care doesn’t have to be 100% in-person or 100% virtual – and healthcare isn’t an industry that is meant to live in these extremes like others might be able to. While not every in-person visit needs to be replaced by virtual care, we can certainly pave the way for more flexibility to fit the needs of practices and patients.

Q. Virtual care can help caregivers provide more proactive care at lower costs and decrease the need for in-person care. But it cannot always do the job on its own. Please elaborate on this situation healthcare has come to.

A. Virtual care has enabled providers to deliver more proactive care in lower cost settings by bridging the gap between necessity and availability. For example, virtual appointments are a more flexible option for patients in rural areas, allowing them to avoid a long drive to their doctor’s office.

Similarly, it is a much safer option for those immunosuppressed, allowing them to avoid potential risk of exposure. In both scenarios, virtual appointments are particularly beneficial for individuals with conditions that require consistent check-ins and monitoring, potentially saving both time and money.

We’ve seen health systems incorporate a hybrid model to deliver the same clinical outcomes with a better patient and staff experience. For example, some of our customers use remote patient monitoring solutions to reduce the number of in-person visits for transplant patients by 50%. Patients are sent home with connected devices to measure and monitor their condition.

The clinicians are then able to collect the appropriate data, provide appropriate reminders and educational content, and connect with the patient virtually, as needed. Virtual care also has helped to alleviate capacity issues experienced by many hospitals and healthcare facilities, allowing for more bandwidth and freeing resources to address other issues.

However, given the importance of preserving a continuous patient journey, some caregiving functions will be challenging to replace completely. Nothing replaces human interaction, and of course, there’s critical in-person evaluations that need to occur to maintain clinical accuracy. Yet we can still realize many benefits from virtual care to improve healthcare outcomes overall.

For example, when it comes to mental health sessions, virtual options can certainly supplement this care and also provide greater insights into the person’s home life. Engagement applications and tools can help individuals better track their progress, improve compliance to treatment, or identify issues sooner, along with their care provider.

As we continue moving to value-based care, we need to create tools that add value and motivate patients to want to be an agent in their care plans, rather than just downloading an app on their smartphone that they rarely use. Now, the challenge is finding the balance between the two care services in a way that serves both patients and providers.

Q. You have predicted that this year there will be more training to define at what point a patient needs to be seen in-person to not only provide effective care, but to keep them engaged in their own care journey. Please explain how you see this playing out.

A. Virtual care is here to stay, but there are still questions that we need to answer in order to integrate this as a successful hybrid model, including defining the point at which a patient should be seen in person and when virtual is a better option.

We see exciting developments of health systems using tools and advanced technologies, such as AI, to help providers more quickly triage patients and help guide them to the most appropriate care setting.

We also need to educate clinicians and patients and train both sides to easily identify virtual and in-person needs to help decrease the frequency of in-person visits without completely replacing them. Resources should be directed to guide people to the right care setting at the right time with the right caregiver and the right resources, thus achieving the quadruple aim.

Initially, many virtual care use cases were focused on the highest acuity patients to reduce hospital readmissions or to manage chronic conditions. Going forward, we will continue to expand these use cases, allowing healthcare providers to deliver better care through an integrated journey of leveraging both in-person and virtual options.

With the adoption of consumer-centric care especially, bringing the human element is the most critical to ensuring a good relationship and fluid communication between patients and their caregivers. For both in-person and virtual, this central human element is a key factor in improving both patient and staff engagement.

Twitter: @SiwickiHealthIT
Email the writer: [email protected]
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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