Along with many other aspects of telehealth, like remote patient monitoring (RPM) and mHealth, the virtual visit is becoming not just a familiar part of the American healthcare delivery, but also a means to significantly boost quality and cost-effectiveness.
The process of utilizing consumer technology to allow patients to confer with physicians and clinicians via videoconferencing apps — usually on their (camera-enabled) smartphones and tablets, but also via traditional PCs — virtual visits aren’t just a trend, but “part of the shift toward making health care more convenient, and they’re already popular,” writes Heidi Godman at the Harvard Health Blog.
So popular, in fact, that more than half of Kaiser Permanente’s physician visits are virtual visits, as the company’s CEO stated last year. As Fortune reported, that amounts to more than 110 million interactions between physicians and patients “done via smartphone, videoconferencing, kiosks, and other technology tools.”
So, why are organizations like Kaiser (among many others) embracing this relatively new method of care delivery? For starters, the implementation of virtual visits has been shown to:
- Reduce costs caused by patients who would otherwise go to the emergency room “because they can’t get in to see a doctor,” as Ken Terry writes in Medical Economics.
- Increase access to care, helping to ease the effects of the physician shortage that’s gripping wide sections of the United States (particularly in rural areas).
- Improve chronic disease management, specifically by easing the process of “postsurgical follow-ups or for medication reconciliation after hospital discharge,” as Terry points out.
How Virtual Visits Enable a Greater Focus on Patients
In addition to reducing costs for healthcare providers, the implementation of virtual visits helps enable a stronger focus on patients. In an industry that’s “historically been designed around the physicians and providers, asking patients to come to their place of work,” as Kia Kokalitcheva puts it in the Fortune article, virtual visits “is reversing this model by bringing health care services to the patients.”
Kaiser’s CEO backs this up, saying that his organization is seeing “greater interaction with our members and the health care system. They’re asking different questions, they’re behaving more like consumers, and medical information now is becoming a critical part of how they’re making life choices.”
Beyond convenience, many patients are embracing virtual visits because of its lower costs. Virtual visits cost just $40 or $50 per visit, notes Godman — or “about half the cost of an in-person visit.”
They’re also increasingly covered by insurance, which was “a major barrier a few years ago,” as former American Telemedicine Association CEO Jonathan Linkous told WebMD. “Many of the major payers are now the ones providing the support for the expansion of such services.”
Just as with other forms of telehealth, the widespread implementation of virtual visit technology faces a few regulatory hurdles. It’s not (yet) covered by Medicare. Yet, as Godman points out, that may not be a deterrent for many patients, since the cost of a virtual visit can still amount to less than the cost of the out-of-pocket co-payment required by Medicare for an in-person visit.
It’s important to note that virtual visits are just one aspect of telehealth, and not intended to completely replace the existing care continuum. Godman notes that, while they’re not “meant to replace every trip to the doctor’s office,” they “may be a good option for minor, temporary problems such as cold and flu, sinusitis, a sore throat, rashes, diarrhea and vomiting, or conjunctivitis.” Virtual visits are also useful in chronic disease management, as noted above, offering a means for quick consultations without the need for traveling to and from the hospital.
It’s important, then, to choose a telehealth provider with the experience and expertise to determine just how virtual visits can benefit your organization’s unique care delivery structure. As Dr. Peter Antall told Terry, both “large healthcare systems and smaller providers have had their eyes opened” as to the potential of this technology, and are starting to see that “this is another way that provider-patient interactions can occur — and they’re beginning to find out what fits with their practice and their lifestyle and their patients’ lifestyle.”