Virtual health is having a heyday right now—and many experts suggest that it is here to stay long term.

Before 2020, few patients or providers utilized telemedicine or virtual care technology. In fact, in January 2020, only 24% of healthcare organizations in the United States had a virtual care delivery program in place, according to Forrester Research. Part of that was due to a lack of uniform coverage policies across states and insurers, says the Kaiser Family Foundation. Obstacles to telehealth included high startup costs, workflow reconfigurations, patient interest and lack of clinician involvement.

However, from November 2019 through January 2020, the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions collaborated with the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) to survey healthcare executives and discover how virtual health will change the healthcare landscape over the next two decades. Fifty percent of the executives surveyed—men and women from health systems, hospitals, health plans, medical device and technology companies, and virtual health vendors with expertise in digital health, strategy, innovation and technology, business development and medicine—thought that at least 25% of all outpatient care, preventive care, long-term care and well-being services would move to virtual delivery by 2040. The survey also revealed that 3 out of 4 executives predicted that industrywide investments in virtual health would be more than 25% higher over the next decade than today.

Of course, at the time of the survey, no one knew that a widespread global pandemic would dramatically change the healthcare industry just a few months later. The onset of COVID-19 essentially required that health systems, hospitals and providers transition to a virtual health model in order to continue treating patients—and to do so quickly and efficiently.

A Catalyst for Change

Although the healthcare industry is notoriously slow for adopting new technologies, the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a quick transition to virtual health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, clinicians shifted from in-person visits and evaluations to virtual care—using phones or videoconferencing technology to address non-urgent medical issues or do routine management of chronic medical conditions. Even health plan care and case managers shifted gears, utilizing virtual health technology to stay in contact with members, provide patient education resources and monitor members at risk for COVID-19.

“This pandemic is set to reshape the healthcare industry with cutting-edge technologies in virtual care, such as internet of medical things (IoMT), teleradiology, telemedicine, remote patient monitoring, and virtual visits,” according to a recent Frost & Sullivan report. “The post-COVID-19 telehealth market forecast of 64% growth versus the anticipated 32% pre-COVID-19 annual growth rate alludes to a 100% growth in adoption.”

As we move toward a post-COVID-19 environment and as hospitals, health systems, providers and health plans find their “new normal,” one thing is for certain: Virtual health is here to stay. Here are just a few reasons virtual health and virtual care management will remain a critical part of the healthcare industry.

> More people will seek out virtual health services. The coronavirus pandemic has made people more cautious about leaving their homes—even when sick and needing medical care. And for people with chronic medical conditions, going out, whether to the grocery store or doctor’s office, can heighten their risk of contracting COVID-19. Virtual health saw a drastic increase during the pandemic; in fact, Forrester Research predicts that virtual care visits will soar past 1 billion in 2020.

“Although virtual health isn’t new, we’ve seen an accelerated shift to virtual care delivery because of COVID-19,” says Tamara Cull, DHA, POPM, senior vice president, portfolio management, Medecision. “We at Medecision don’t see this changing anytime soon. In fact, we expect virtual health to become the norm and for more healthcare consumers, providers and even care managers to embrace it.”

> Virtual health will be used in specialty care and behavioral health. Chronic conditions don’t go away during a pandemic, and many specialists had to figure out ways to still care for patients from a distance. For example, in early March, the American College of Cardiology issued guidance on setting up clinics for virtual visits and remote monitoring—such as distributing weight scales, blood pressure cuffs and other standard cardiac monitoring devices to help replace routine visits. Behavioral health has also seen an upswing in virtual use, and that’s expected to continue. Major health plans, such as Aetna, are even covering behavioral health virtual visits. These face-to-face visits can help combat loneliness and ward off feelings of depression and anxiety—a benefit both during and after COVID-19.

> Care managers will have better communication with members. Physicians aren’t the only ones who have transitioned to telehealth. Care and case managers at health plans have also started using virtual health technology to engage members—and that will likely continue in a post-pandemic environment. Care managers address a variety of complex situations, including behavioral health issues and social determinants of health such as homelessness and food insecurity. A face-to-face conversation with members through videoconferencing technology can help establish trust.

> CMS is reimbursing virtual care visits the same as in-person visits. Effective March 6, 2020, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services expanded the use of telehealth with an 1135 waiver. Under this new waiver, “Medicare can pay for office, hospital and other visits furnished via telehealth across the country and including in [patients’] places of residence.” Before this expansion, Medicare was permitted to pay clinicians for telehealth services only in certain circumstances. This new provision helps ensure that Medicare beneficiaries—a population at a higher risk for COVID-19—are able to visit their doctor from home and reduce their risk of transmission. It’s unknown how long this expansion of services will last, as the CMS has stated it’s for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

To learn how Medecision’s Aerial platform can help your organization succeed at virtual health, while also boosting operational productivity and improving patient engagement, click here.

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