The COVID-19 pandemic is increasing the use of telehealth in the United States, with 46 percent of consumers now preferring a telehealth visit over a traditional trip to a doctor’s office, according to a recent McKinsey & Company survey. In contrast, only 11 percent of patients preferred telehealth over office visits prior to the pandemic.  

Patients also told McKinsey they were highly satisfied with their telehealth experience: 74 percent of survey participants said they were “highly satisfied,” while 76 percent told the interviewers they were “moderately to highly likely” to use it in the future. 

“The potential impact is improved convenience and access to care, better patient outcomes and a more efficient healthcare system,” McKinsey researchers wrote. “Healthcare players may consider moves now that support such a shift and improve their future position.”

Numerous benefits for providers, patients

McKinsey’s new analysis also suggests telehealth could eliminate 20 percent of ER visits and 24 percent of office visits as well as increase access in areas that historically have faced provider shortages. 

Even more, telehealth allows patients to consult their immediate concerns “on demand,” avoiding unnecessary in-person visits and providing more frequent touchpoints with providers. 

“This model also enables clinicians to better manage patients with chronic conditions, with the support of remote patient monitoring, digital therapeutics, and digital coaching, in addition to virtual visits,” McKinsey’s researchers wrote. 

In addition to virtualized office visits, McKinsey’s models suggest many home health services also could be provided remotely, including some degree of evaluation, patient and caregiver education, and physical therapy. 

Challenges remain

Despite the potential benefits, widespread telehealth adoption in the U.S. is not a slam dunk. Like it or not, physical examinations ­are part of the culture in the U.S. healthcare system — for patients and providers alike. Even more, while McKinsey’s survey suggests three-quarters of participants are interested in meeting with their doctor virtually, less than half of those interviewed are utilizing telehealth applications. 

McKinsey attributes this gap in telehealth utilization to a “lack of awareness of telehealth offerings, education on types of care needs that could be met virtually and understanding of insurance coverage.”

Unsurprisingly, some providers, too, appear reticent about moving too quickly towards telehealth. After all, migrating a practice online is much more difficult than simply installing Zoom on physicians’ smartphones. 

“Our research indicates providers’ concerns about telehealth include security, workflow integration, effectiveness compared with in-person visits and the future for reimbursement,” McKinsey wrote.

On the other hand, COVID-19 has many providers warming up to the idea of telehealth. McKinsey’s survey reported 57 percent of providers view telehealth “more favorably than they did before COVID-19”, and 64 percent are “more comfortable” using it. 

Scaling to win

Launching a telehealth offering is a significant undertaking, typically requiring a substantial upfront investment as well as clinical, technological and operational acumen. In releasing its survey, McKinsey also provided specific guidance for investors, insurers and providers on how they can prepare for the expected industry-wide migration from in-person to virtual office visits. 

McKinsey recommends that insurers utilize data, incentivize telehealth with provider networks and design a virtual experience that satisfies consumer preferences. It also emphasizes the role technology must play in unleashing the full potential of telehealth. 

For providers, McKinsey suggests building off the telehealth systems already in place from COVID-19. The consultancy recommends that health systems organize patient populations, develop capabilities and incentives, and quantify clinical results to measure the value of telehealth. 

McKinsey also recommends that investors develop future scenarios and study the possible evolution of virtual health. According to McKinsey, investors need to develop investment strategies, assess their ability to implement them and, last but not least, execute. 

“The window to act is now,” McKinsey researchers wrote. “The current crisis has demonstrated the relevance of telehealth and created an opening to modernize the care delivery system. This modernization will be achieved by embedding telehealth in the care continuum at scale.”

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