Delivering Virtual Care in a Post-Pandemic World
Updated: May 7
Now, more than ever, working from home is not just nice-to-have, it is saving lives. The future of work is remote and hospitals are adapting their operating models. They are being pressed to scale remote work and remote service delivery to meet exploding patient demand in a compliant manner. One of our clients has witnessed telehealth services grow tenfold since the start of the pandemic, servicing over 14,000 televisits daily and sometimes seeing over 1,500 patients in consecutive intervals. During this time period alone, virtual care has risen to 80%.
While telehealth was already a priority because of the looming crisis in physician availability, COVID-19 has massively accelerated adoption by health care organizations. Driven by the needs of aging baby boomers, the US can expect a shortfall of as many as 122,000 physicians by 2032. In addition to physician shortages, telemedicine addresses the lack of healthcare options in historically underserved rural areas.
Our experience over the last few weeks point to three keys to success right now: technology, culture, and risk management. We cover those below and round them out with a short case study of one provider in particular.
1. Tapping technologies to unlock scale
Remote care is nothing if not technology intensive, but the equipment costs are far less than the alternative of providing in-person care during an epidemic. Providers can treat patients from designated virtual care centers if they are properly equipped. Providing follow-up care, mental health services, and diagnostic testing through telemedicine can reduce costly inpatient visits, transportation time, and in extreme cases, protect both patients and providers at the front line from getting sick. Augmented with wearable devices, remote providers can monitor transmitted health data in near real-time for unusual spikes in patient activity.
Healthcare providers can employ an arsenal of remote-enabling tools (cloud-based EMRs, patient portals, automated reminders, virtual agents, and predictive analytics) to empower real-time collaboration, secure information sharing, and provide patient education to deliver care beyond the confines of the hospital bed.
2. Develop new culture offerings to meet changing demands
Like people in more traditional corporate jobs, providers are beginning to prioritize lifestyle preferences in their choices of where to work. In remote areas, the nursing demand for understaffed hospitals in rural facilities gave birth to an entire new workforce of travel nurses. Companies that offer the flexibility to work remotely will have distinct advantages in recruiting scarce medical talent.
COVID-19 has presented hospitals with the opportunity to capitalize on the changing perception of telemedicine as more patients prefer to be tested or treated in the comfort and safety of their own homes. By expanding telehealth offerings, hospitals have the ability to expand the widespread adoption of remote healthcare. Providers can expand their remote working practice by adopting a culture of innovation. Appoint a culture committee, establish culture guidelines, and instill these values around innovation and care for the lifestyles of employees early in the onboarding journey. Innovation centers can explore new remote-working capabilities, pilot programs to test their impact, and socialize these benefits for broad adoption.
3. Managing risk
This new environment brings a host of new risks to the delivery of healthcare. Innovation also means focusing on the changing nature of risks in a number of ways:
Continuity of care: Remote service delivery may increase the risk of reduced continuity of care. When patients are connected to different providers every time they seek care, they risk losing personal connection offered by a single physician. Well-designed virtual touchpoints can foster even stronger provider-patient relationships than infrequent in-person meetings. A simple solution is to match a patient with the same provider for consistency.
Systems overload: Another risk is that physicians, already inundated by the number of tools they use, may burnout with the addition of serious remote service technologies. A designated virtual hospital would alleviate this administrative burden. By divvying up the work to providers that are solely focused on technology oversight, physicians that provide care on-site can solely focus on their patients.
Training: New technology means new practices, and some patient populations, especially seniors, are unversed with new technology. Similarly, hospital staff may require additional training to get comfortable with using them. Providers should adopt omni-channel communication channels, and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) capabilities to meet varying user preferences across ages and demographics. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Change management: Finally, the biggest risk is managing culture change and transformation. For example, some health care providers dispute the accuracy of remote monitoring tools or distrust data interpreted by another provider. Getting the whole organization’s culture on-board with new approaches is critical to raising the bar on performance in the face of current challenges.
Case Study: A fully operational virtual care center
Mercy Hospital launched its Virtual Care Center in 2015. The “hospital without beds” serves patients 24/7 around the clock exclusively through telemedicine. Biometric sensors compatible with patient phones and iPads monitor their vital signs remotely, and route the information feed back to the virtual care center for processing in real-time. Patients experienced less stress from avoiding hospital admissions and reported a lower risk of contracting hospital infections.
Additionally, its Virtual Care Program provides remote care for chronically ill patients. In a pilot, patient navigators visited the homes of 250 enrollees twice a week to provide care. The virtual care program has reduced costly inpatient visits by 33%,including emergency room visits and hospitalizations (the average night in a US hospital is $4,600). Eliminating that in-facility stay allows scarce resources to be reallocated to purchasing remote-enabling technologies that improve patient outcomes and experience.
Mercy Hospital has further expanded its remote care options across its hospital facilities to confront the recent outbreak. Its innovative programs have demonstrated that technology opens the door to more cost-effective approaches to managing care than traditional inpatient care.
The pandemic has highlighted the need for healthcare companies to embrace innovation and build a robust remote operating model. From monitoring patient vitals after discharge to running a highly functional virtual care center, providers must seamlessly integrate remote-enabling technologies to address current and future patient needs in rural communities, rising costs of care, and physician shortage.