By Harry Wang April 15, 2014
Connectivity has created many new care options in the healthcare industry, including virtual health kiosks and portals, remote consultations, and electronic personal health records. These telehealth options will continue to increase in availability in the near term, and insurers, under pressure to adopt these new methods in order to save costs, will start to reimburse virtual care options to supplement traditional face-to-face visits.
These market factors will drive revenue for video consultations alone from less than $100 million in 2013 to $13.7 billion in 2018, with most revenues coming from health insurers, which will foot the bill just as they reimburse for face-to-face visits. By 2018, 22 million households will use virtual care solutions, up from less than a million in 2013. Average visits among these adopter households will increase from 2 per year in 2013 to 6 per year in 2018, which include both acute care and preventive follow-up services in a variety of care settings—at home, at retail kiosk or at work.
But for virtual care programs to reach these levels, healthcare providers, insurers, and other health personnel will need to promote these solutions to their patients. To do so successfully, they will need to fully embrace telehealth, and understand the unique benefits it can provide, before passing programs on to their end users. People frequently use online health portals like WebMD for minor questions, detailed health information, and advice on-demand, but the U.S. population as whole has been slow to take up usage of these services. Providers will need to communicate the benefits clearly to patients, and doctors in particular will be important players in ensuring smooth transition into this new care paradigm.
Benefits of Virtual Care
Not all aspects of virtual care will generate revenue or save time, but many program aspects will lead to significant savings and an increased quality of patient care. For healthcare providers, telehealth options address requested changes in healthcare reform laws.
• Extend reach and expand service to patients who require more access, such as patients who live in rural or remote areas.
• Minimize hospital admissions and readmissions by addressing non-emergency health concerns with preventative methods within a digital space.
• Help to monitor and manage long-term and post-hospital patient care while a patient rests and recuperates at home.
• Increase the number of patients who can be seen and treated during a given period of time.
• Provide new streams of revenue in the form of virtual consultations and assessments.
• Earn incentives from programs like the HITECH Act.
A majority of money spent in the healthcare industry (75%) is spent on the treatment of chronic diseases. The National Health Council notes that approximately 133 million Americans currently have a chronic disease, and the number continues to increase year by year. Virtual care provides physicians an easier way to continue monitoring and engaging with chronic care patients while reducing these costs. Virtual care also provides care professionals with a method of treating routine healthcare concerns, such as the common cold, seasonal allergies, and sinus infections.
For patients, these options mean that minor health concerns can be addressed faster and typically while still at home. In some instances, virtual care programs can provide patients with instant access to a doctor or physician—no wait involved. Other programs will be able to connect patients with physicians during off- or non-regular office hours, giving patients immediate access without having to go to the emergency room.
In addition to access to a healthcare professional, patients who use virtual care programs through their healthcare provider will be able to:
• access personal medical information and lab test results
• refill needed prescriptions
• schedule future in-office appointments with a physician
• receive important updates and reminders tailored to their needs
Depending on the program the provider has in place, virtual care portals can provide patients with the tools and resources they need to actively monitor and manage their own health goals.
Overall, virtual health programs present new opportunities for patients to take a stake in their personal health needs. By better connecting patients to medical information and to physicians, and in turn connecting healthcare providers to key health data, the doctor-patient relationship is enhanced and quality of life increases.
Convincing Patients to Adopt
Despite these benefits, patients still overwhelmingly prefer traditional methods of visitation over digital services. In fact, less than 30% of all U.S. broadband households have used some type of online healthcare communications, and a majority of those are young, middle-income patients.
The desire for web-based health information is strong. Two-thirds of all U.S. broadband households have visited at least one health-related website in the past year. Thirty-six percent visited a health portal like WebMD, and 34% visited a site dedicated to health, nutrition, or diet information. However, this desire has not crossed over to communications with healthcare providers.
In order to get the reluctant masses to consider online health tools, primary care physicians and healthcare providers will have to persuade qualified patients to adopt these new methods. Our research indicates that patients pay attention to and respect recommendations by their physician or primary care provider. In fact, doctors remain the most trusted source consumers turn to when they need advice about managing their personal health.
Of the nearly 75% of households that have not used online healthcare communications, over 50% indicate that they are comfortable with the idea of using online tools to communicate with their healthcare provider. It will be up to providers then to bridge this gap. The majority of these consumers acknowledge that saving time would be the primary reason for them to use online tools, so providers need to emphasize this benefit in particular when promoting these resources to patients.
If providers educate their patients on the unique benefits of virtual care while encouraging use of services like remote consultations or testing kiosks, adoption will continue to increase. Parks Associates is optimistic that these efforts will have a positive impact on use and adoption, with benefits to patients and also to businesses working in the healthcare space.