Why you should (virtually) care

Why you should (virtually) care

Virtual-first care, or V1C, could increase the quality of healthcare and make it more patient-centric by letting patients combine in-person visits with virtual options such as video for seeing their care providers.

(© Elnur/Fotolia)

As the pandemic turns endemic, healthcare providers have been eagerly urging patients to return to their offices to enjoy the benefits of in-person care.

But wait.

The last two years have forced all sorts of organizations to be nimble, adaptable and creative in how they work, and this includes healthcare providers’ efforts to maintain continuity of care under the most challenging of conditions. So before we go back to “business as usual,” don’t we owe it to those providers and ourselves to admit that business as usual did not work for most of the people the industry exists to help? If we’re going to embrace yet another period of change – periods that don’t happen often in our complex industry – shouldn’t we first stop and ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve?

Certainly, COVID has shown that telehealth can be an invaluable tool, particularly for patients in rural and underserved communities that lack access to specialty care. It’s also become clear that many – though not all – healthcare encounters can be effectively conducted from afar. That said, the telehealth tactics that filled the gap during the pandemic were largely stitched together substitutes for existing visit-based workflows: with offices closed, patients scheduled video visits for help managing the side effects of their blood pressure medications or to see their endocrinologist for a quarterly check-in. Anyone whose children slogged through the last year or two of remote learning can tell you that simply virtualizing existing processes doesn’t necessarily improve the experience or the outcomes!

But what if our approach to post-pandemic healthcare came from a patient-driven perspective? We have a fleeting opportunity to advance a care model centered on convenient and equitable access that first prioritizes good outcomes, then selects approaches to care – and locations – tailored to each patient. Using the example of education, imagine how effective it would be if each student, regardless of their school district and aptitude, received such individualized attention.

That’s the idea behind virtual-first care (V1C), a new care model centered on convenient, customized, high-quality care that integrates a full suite of services tailored directly to patients’ clinical needs and preferences. This package includes asynchronous communication such as texting; video and other live virtual modes; and in-person options.

V1C goes beyond what you might think of as standard “telehealth” by using evidence-based protocols and tools that include traditional and digital therapeutics and testing, personalized care plans, dynamic patient monitoring, and team-based approaches to care. This could include spit kits mailed for laboratory tests and complementing clinical care with health coaching. V1C also replaces some in-person exams with ongoing monitoring, using sensors for more ‘whole person’ care.

Amidst all this momentum, we have the opportunity to rethink the goals of healthcare innovation, but that means bringing together key stakeholders to demonstrate that sustainable V1C can redefine healthcare.

Established V1C healthcare providers such as Omada, Headspace, and Heartbeat Health, as well as emerging market entrants like Oshi, Visana, and Wellinks, work with a variety of patients who have complicated long-term conditions such as diabetes, heart failure, gastrointestinal illness, endometriosis, and COPD. V1C is comprehensive in ways that are lacking in digital health and its other predecessors: it has the potential to integrate multiple data streams, incorporate more frequent touches and check-ins over time, and manage a much wider range of chronic health conditions, improving lives and reducing disease burden now and in the future.

Recognizing the pandemic-driven interest in virtual care, significant energy and resources are already flowing fast toward V1C. Some of the world’s largest innovators jumped into V1C early on: Verily, Alphabet’s Life Sciences Company, launched Onduo in 2016 to disrupt the diabetes healthcare market, and is now well positioned to scale its solutions. Major insurers like Aetna and United now offer virtual-first plans to members, responding as organizations expand virtual options for employees. Amidst all this momentum, we have the opportunity to rethink the goals of healthcare innovation, but that means bringing together key stakeholders to demonstrate that sustainable V1C can redefine healthcare.

That was the immediate impetus for IMPACT, a consortium of V1C companies, investors, payers and patients founded last year to ensure access to high-quality, evidence-based V1C. Developed by our team at the Digital Medicine Society (DiMe) in collaboration with the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), IMPACT has begun to explore key issues that include giving patients more integrated experiences when accessing both virtual and brick-and-mortar care.

Digital Medicine Society

V1C is not, nor should it be, virtual-only care. In this new era of hybrid healthcare, success will be defined by how well providers help patients navigate the transitions. How do we smoothly hand a patient off from an onsite primary care physician to, say, a virtual cardiologist? How do we get information from a brick-and-mortar to a digital portal? How do you manage dataflow while still staying HIPAA compliant? There are many complex regulatory implications for these new models, as well as an evolving landscape in terms of privacy, security and interoperability. It will be no small task for groups like IMPACT to determine the best path forward.

None of these factors matter unless the industry can recruit and retain clinicians. Our field is facing an unprecedented workforce crisis. Traditional healthcare is making clinicians miserable, and COVID has only accelerated the trend of overworked, disenchanted healthcare workers leaving in droves. Clinicians want more interactions with patients, and fewer with computer screens – call it “More face time, less FaceTime.” No new model will succeed unless the industry can more efficiently deploy its talent – arguably its most scarce and precious resource. V1C can help with alleviating the increasing burden and frustration borne by individual physicians in today’s status quo.

In healthcare, new technological approaches inevitably provoke no shortage of skepticism. Past lessons from Silicon Valley-driven fixes have led to understandable cynicism. But V1C is a different breed of animal. By building healthcare around the patient, not the clinic, V1C can make healthcare work better for patients, payers and providers. We’re at a fork in the road: we can revert back to a broken sick-care system, or dig in and do the hard work of figuring out how this future-forward healthcare system gets financed, organized and executed. As a field, we must find the courage and summon the energy to embrace this moment, and make it a moment of change.

Jennifer C. Goldsack & Linette Demers
Jennifer C. Goldsack co-founded and serves as the CEO of the Digital Medicine Society (DiMe), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to advancing digital medicine to optimize human health. Jennifer’s research focuses on applied approaches to the safe, effective, and equitable use of digital technologies to improve health, healthcare, and health research. She is a member of the Roundtable on Genomics and Precision Health at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine and serves on the World Economic Forum Global Leadership Council on mental health. Previously, Jennifer spent several years at the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative (CTTI), a public-private partnership co-founded by Duke University and the FDA. There, she led development and implementation of several projects within CTTI’s Digital Program and was the operational co-lead on the first randomized clinical trial using FDA’s Sentinel System. Jennifer spent five years working in research at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, first in Outcomes Research in the Department of Surgery and later in the Department of Medicine. More recently, she helped launch the Value Institute, a pragmatic research and innovation center embedded in a large academic medical center in Delaware. Jennifer earned her master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Oxford, England, her masters in the history and sociology of medicine from the University of Pennsylvania, and her MBA from the George Washington University. Additionally, she is a certified Lean Six Sigma Green Belt and a Certified Professional in Healthcare Quality. Jennifer is a retired athlete, formerly a Pan American Games Champion, Olympian, and World Championship silver medalist. ___________________________________________________________________________ Linette Demers leads IMPACT, a DiMe initiative dedicated to advancing high value, evidence-based virtual first care for patients, healthcare providers, and payers. Previously, Linette was responsible for commercialization, entrepreneurship and capital formation programs at Life Science Washington and WINGS Angels. Her 20 year career in healthcare spans strategy, business development, and population health management in oncology care at Fred Hutch, and management consulting at Sg2. Linette holds a PhD in Chemistry and a BS in Health Economics and Outcomes Research.
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