It’s a chicken or the egg idea: Is healthcare changing or is telemedicine changing healthcare? Perhaps it’s a bit of both, but it seems clear that the digitization of healthcare is well underway. Industry disruptors include increased consumerism driven by the widespread adoption of new technology tools by healthcare providers and their patients. No matter the causes, telemedicine is changing how we deliver and measure care.
Mobihealthnews says the global growth of telehealth is phenomenal: the industry will expand from $38 billion today to $130 billion by 2025. An increase in telecommunications networks to rural locations in the U.S. as well as a global surge to build networks will help fuel this growth. But it is consumer demand that is largely driving the expansion of telehealth tools in medicine today.
With telemedicine at the tipping point, how will the industry and the patients we serve change as a result of these trends? Will the healthcare visit of the future become almost exclusively virtual? What place does telehealth have in the American healthcare paradigm of the future?
Four Ways Telehealth is Influencing Healthcare Trends
“Direct-to-consumer (DTC) telemedicine is growing at an ever-expanding rate due to new phone, computer, app technology and patient demand. Now, patients can quickly assess healthcare providers for phone or video visits via their personal devices. For hospitals and providers, the big draw with virtual visits is the potential savings involved in replacing physician office visits and ER visits.”
Managed Healthcare Executive
There are four primary trends that are influencing the growth of telehealth in the United States. They include:
1. The rise of direct-to-consumer telehealth applications has saturated the primary care space. From employers, and payers, to hospitals, to big box storefronts like CVS, it seems like everyone is offering on-demand telemedicine services. In 2015, there were more than 1.25 million direct-to-consumer visits in the U.S., and some vendors report a more than 50% increase in patient utilization of these tools.
Direct-to-consumer models are delivered in three primary ways:
- Offered by a patient’s established medical provider as an alternative to the traditional on-site visit.
- Referred to a specialist for care within an existing healthcare relationship.
- A new service outside the patient’s traditional medical home where there isn’t a prior relationship and little coordination with their existing primary care provider – if they have one. This is true “on-demand” care, similar to urgent care or an in-pharmacy minute clinic.
While these models are growing rapidly, a recent study shows that consumers still prefer the first model of direct-to-consumer telehealth, where the patient relationship is established prior to their use of telehealth. The anonymity of retail models seems less attractive to patients who appear to still prefer a trusted relationship with an established patient.
2. The logical extension of the D-to-C movement is self-service apps as the next generation of healthcare products that include artificial intelligence (AI). In these models, the patient is guided through a series of questions by intelligent algorithms behind the scenes. These bots can interpret patient responses and provide important data to a clinical provider, who is connected after the Q&A process is complete. While these tools may help facilitate a more efficient clinical visit, Health Leaders Media quotes a clinician who casts doubt on the widespread use of these new tools:
I strongly believe that most people are not going to get their healthcare from an ATM. We’re not going to walk up to a computer, have a conversation, the computer spits out a diagnosis, and you open up the drawer, and there’s your medication.
Could the addition of automation and smart AI potentially increase the efficiency of a clinical encounter? Perhaps a better question would be are doctors and consumers even comfortable with the idea of incorporating these tools?
3. We already know that care coordination can improve through the use of telehealth tools. One growth area, particularly in the last year, has been the use of video conferencing to enhance communication between care providers. These models have been applied effectively in telestroke service lines, which have highly benefited from the immediate access to a specialty provider when patients present stroke symptoms in rural ERs. The collaboration between providers can include secure texting, email, phone calls, or video.
4. Finally, the idea of where we can receive healthcare is changing thanks to telehealth. Tomorrow’s healthcare will be delivered in new ways simply by being offered in a virtual house call, where the doctor comes to the patient. It takes the concept of “all healthcare is local” to an entirely new place – the patient’s home. The idea tips the scales in favor of the patient, improving the convenience of care delivery not for the doctor, but for our customer. Health Leaders Media paints an interesting picture of the new healthcare geography:
Equipping nursing homes and hospital rooms this way would enable a variety of practitioners to provide bedside care more conveniently—for the patient and the provider. Patients wouldn't have to be transported, and practitioners could see more patients without disruption. In addition, the primary care provider, family, and friends located elsewhere could link into the video consultations, enhancing communication between all parties involved in the patient's care.
Telemedicine is Changing Healthcare, Doctors, and Patients
It’s true that telemedicine is predicted to undergo huge growth in the future. The growing use of smartphones, widespread Internet access, and the customer expectation of convenience will continue to drive adoption upward. It’s true that an increasing number of patients would prefer dialing up their doctor instead of traveling to an appointment and waiting to see the doctor.
The Center for Connected Medicine released a report in 2019 stating that telehealth is top of min for healthcare IT executives. Most analysts also predict explosive growth of these tools. It’s clear that consumer trends are driving increasing interested if not outright adoption of telemedicine to provide care. The technology is both here to stay and highly beneficial, and healthcare providers will be forced to leverage these tools in the years to come, as more consumers request access to the virtual visit and the convenience it provides.
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