COVID-19 has, unfortunately, had a tremendous, lasting and negative effect on patients and their families, on essential workers and healthcare professionals, and humanity in general. 

Within healthcare, COVID-19 has forced health systems, providers, employers, insurers, and regulators to rapidly deploy and expand virtual care programs to support patients. Because of this rapid need for and shift towards virtual care, COVID-19 has caused a high level of market disruption. COVID-19 required these stakeholders to prioritize the integration of new technologies, allowed for new players to gain market share, forced CMS and other agencies to adjust regulations and financial support, and changed the way employees interact with work.

It has forever changed the way patients are managed, engaged, visited, and monitored. Almost overnight, providers shifted from no virtual care offerings or small programs serving hundreds of people to broadscale, enterprise deployments serving tens of thousands of people per month.

As we look ahead to 2021, and healthcare organizations begin to refine, expand, and improve their virtual care strategies, we lay the groundwork for the new standard of care.

Watch Prisma Health Chief Digital Officer Nick Patel and Validic CEO Drew Schiller break down the trends, innovations, and opportunities for the year ahead in our latest webinar.

Lessons Learned in 2020

Healthcare’s use of virtual care technology has advanced seven years in the last seven months. Out of fear of contracting COVID-19, many patients canceled in-person appointments, which created an influx of interest in telemedicine and other forms of virtual care in the U.S. 

“This surge led to two things: realizing our healthcare system could quickly go virtual and healthcare workers wishing we had these care strategies in place before the pandemic,” said Schiller.  “So many things had to be cobbled together so quickly in such a short amount of time. None of this technology was new; it was all technology that we have been looking at and discussing for years.”

Virtual care strategies like telehealth and remote patient monitoring allow hospitals and health systems to treat patients safely from their homes. Through telemedicine, care in both the inpatient and outpatient setting has drastically changed.

“I’ve been proud to see how fast digital health has taken off since March, Last year, we did about 22,000 virtual visits, and as of today, we’ve done over 440,000 virtual visits and have had about 170,000 engagements in our automated chatbot,” said Patel. “We’ve had great adoption from our providers, and we’ve gotten great feedback from our patients, more importantly; and, they appreciate the work that we’ve done and reached out to them during a time of need.”

Looking Ahead to 2021: How Healthcare Will Prioritize Virtual Care 

More than ever, our healthcare system has realized the value of virtual care strategies for driving efficiency and safety, which has providers and patients asking how we can continue these once COVID is over. A recent survey found that at least 60 percent of patients who used virtual care tools said that based on their experiences during the pandemic, they want to use technology more for communicating with their healthcare providers and managing their conditions in the future.

The swift shift to virtual care also meant a change in priorities for caregivers. With the rise of sick patients, providers had to monitor more patients from home. Healthcare providers who implemented RPM technologies ensured that their patients benefited from early interventions through continuous monitoring and routine telehealth check-ups.

“An important thing that has happened here is that there’s been a shift about what is important in healthcare. The importance of healthcare is health – not sick care,” said Patel. “It’s about how do we incentivize you to stay healthy. In order to do that, you’re going to have to do more than just see a person every three months, six months, or twelve months. You’re going to have to be able to measure how the person is doing in their environment in real-time: their sugars, their weight, their fitness, their blood pressure, their cognitive strain, and stress.”

Why Data is Critical to Virtual Care

Before COVID-19, physicians collected and relied on data that was collected or shared during in-person appointments with their patients. When providers shifted to virtual care, they realized they were missing a crucial element in managing their patient’s chronic conditions: data.

Doctors need data to practice medicine,” said Shiller. “Physicians are telling me, I am now missing a critical piece of the puzzle. Every time I see my patients, they have already checked in, weighed themselves, taken their blood pressure. And I don’t have any of those data now.” Without the context of a patient’s physiological data, it is difficult for a physician to understand the status and health of the patient. 

Remote patient monitoring (RPM) allows providers access to continuous data such as blood pressure, weight, and blood glucose levels. These programs enable patients to sync their home medical devices and wearables easily, such as connected blood pressure cuffs, glucometers, or pulse oximetry devices. The data from those devices can be captured within the clinical workflow and automatically alerted to providers when there is a trend or reading that requires intervention, follow-up or treatment adjustment.

“Remote patient monitoring is beyond just a one-to-one visit. I want to know how you do when I’m not seeing you,” said Patel. “Are you doing that fitness that you need to do? Are you hitting that 10,000 step goal? Is your blood pressure where I want it to be? Are your sugars where I want them to be? Why should you have high blood pressure or blood sugars for six months? The quicker I can treat you, the more quickly I can get you to your health goals faster.”

Many patients and physicians are ready for the healthcare system to be virtual in how we deliver care. The technology already exists for health systems to launch virtual care programs. We have all the capabilities we need to bring these data into the clinical workflow. We have the tools to make sense of these data for both patients and providers. And, we have proof that these programs lead to better, more proactive care. 

To learn more about 2021’s virtual care trends, watch the video-on-demand here.

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