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COVID-19 accelerated adoption of a digital front door, introducing virtual care access at scale. How can organizations utilize that door after the pandemic wanes?

Healthcare organizations looking to unlock the digital front door in healthcare should build up their health IT infrastructure, consider a patient-centered approach, and factor in the impact virtual care will have on clinical workflows, according to a new report from Wolters Kluwer.

The first in a five-part series outlining the post COVID-19 future of healthcare, the report looked at the impact virtual care access and telehealth has had during the pandemic and where it will move in the future.

Like other industry experts, the report authors gave a nod to virtual health technologies and remote patient access, saying these tools were instrumental in stemming the spread of the virus.

“The most vulnerable among us were its prime targets, which crystallized just how insufficient the brick-and-mortar care model is in providing people with broad access to care and how incredibly difficult population health management is to achieve,” Wolters Kluwer researchers wrote in the report. “If organizations were considering implementing virtual care strategies before the pandemic, they were now actually forced to accelerate those efforts.”

And from there, digital technology use became widespread, something most patients and providers alike are largely saying is a good thing. Fifty-seven percent of clinicians view telehealth more favorably than they did in 2019, and 64 percent said they are more confident using the technology than before.

Patients are also getting on board. In 2019, 11 percent of patients were accessing healthcare virtually and through telehealth. Now, three-quarters of patients are using technology for care access.

The healthcare industry is in near consensus that these gains in virtual care access are likely here to say, so long as medicine continues to make it easy for the patient to use technology.

After all, virtual care access and the digital front door could be essential tools for addressing health disparities. Traditionally marginalized populations — low-income people, those in rural areas, and older adults, for example — often face barriers to care access that have a downstream impact on their health and wellness.

Sixty-nine percent of individuals living in rural areas, for instance, cited more convenient care access as a top factor influencing them to adopt telehealth.

Meanwhile, the researchers pointed out that healthcare disparities, like the increased odds that Black patients will die from heart disease or have high blood pressure, could be ameliorated by digital access to care. These disparities in chronic disease illness have in small part stemmed from poor patient access to care, and the researchers said digital technology can play a role in addressing that.

“Virtual care and patient engagement strategies can respond to those challenges while also addressing health disparities and risk factors specific to those populations — especially when such strategies combine more frequent patient contact with understanding of the social determinants of health and other health-related data outside the traditional care paradigms,” the research team said.

Of note, factors like access to reliable technology and broadband are also social determinants of health, and they can impede a traditionally marginalized patient’s ability to access virtual care.

In fact, broadband issues and other health IT infrastructure considerations should be top-of-mind when working to keep the digital front door open past the COVID-19 crisis, the researchers noted. This will require healthcare collaboration with government and policymakers who can implement new systems to improve broadband.

Next, healthcare organizations need to ensure patients have adequate digital health literacy to engage with virtual care tools. This will ensure patients not only understand how to use virtual care tools, but see the benefit of doing so.

Third, the researchers recommended segmenting patients based on healthcare need and preference. This could yield more personalized digital health solutions.

On that same note, the researchers also encouraged medical providers to rethink how they engage with patients over this new virtual medium. This will require new considerations for language preferences and different digital health proficiency levels.

Next, the team recommended providers reconsider the patient-provider relationship, pointing out that the digital front door allows providers to understand new aspects of patient health. Virtual care offerings may help providers see more of a patient’s social determinants of health, and therefore augment the care that providers deliver.

One the organization leadership side, it will be essential for executives to understand the effect the digital front door might have on clinician workflows. This will begin with mapping the virtual patient care journey and then aligning that map with clinician workflows. From there, clinical teams need the tools to help them triage patients to the right type of care at the right time.

Finally, the researchers asserted healthcare organizations need to outline how they will measure efficacy of the new digital front door. This will prominently include outcomes and patient experience data, but should also factor in social determinants of health data.

This report is the first in a series coming from Wolters Kluwer. The consulting firm will also issue reports about clinical decision-making, artificial intelligence in advanced disease surveillance, workforce allocation, and health information exchange. These factors are all ones that COVID-19 disrupted this year and that Wolters Kluwer says can be leveraged to shape the overall future of healthcare.

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