Robbie is CEO and Co-Founder of 98point6, pairing deep technology with board-certified MDs to deliver on-demand text-based primary care.
After years of existing on the fringes of the system, digital health has transitioned into the mainstream, as providers — who have long resisted technological transformation — now rely upon virtual care as a core pillar of care delivery.
Like so many industries in 2020, healthcare made swift and massive changes in response to the pandemic. The ability to scale remote services, diagnostics, treatment and research became critical to ensuring care and continuity for an entire global population. Governments and healthcare systems around the world quickly realized the importance of digital health and the critical role it plays in enabling safe, high-quality, accessible, equitable and affordable care.
Largely, the rapid ramp-up of digital health services has gone well, and most patients have embraced the format of a virtual visit with their doctors. Yet change is never perfect; there is always room for improvement. Now that so many more providers and patients are engaging with digital health, three key opportunities for improvement and additional innovation have surfaced:
1. Whole person, longitudinal care. A new set of health concerns have emerged in the pandemic, prompting more demand across primary and digital care offerings. Behavioral health support is the most prominent — more than half of U.S. adults surveyed in 2020 said they have struggled with mental health during Covid-19. Therapists across the country have reported surges in demand for in-person and virtual sessions. Lifestyle changes during the past year have also led to an increase in demand for physical therapy and chiropractic treatment. All in all, people need integrated, collaborative care, and digital health solutions must step up to provide it. Virtual care platforms must allow patients to access a team of providers all working toward treating the whole person, allowing problems to be addressed further upstream. Patients can then be given the appropriate level of care — including therapy, exercise regimens, nutritional counseling and medication management — at their convenience.
2. Integration of labs and diagnostics to improve workflows, access and patient education. Nearly one-third of all in-office doctor visits result in a screening or lab order. Typically, the results of those screenings are not widely understood by patients and require additional input or explanation from a physician. Patients receiving virtual care need a seamless way to order labs, receive the results and discuss the next steps with their doctor. As patients become more reliant on their personal health apps and more engaged with virtual care, digital health solutions will need to better integrate preventative care, diagnostics, screenings and follow-up. There is the potential to virtualize a significant portion of the lab space, as many tests and patient monitoring can now be done via at-home kits.
3. Virtual-first strategies. There will always be times when patients must be seen in person, but doctors today can and should become much more intentional about whether a patient would benefit from an in-person visit instead of a virtual visit. Over the last year, healthcare has successfully demonstrated that treating and managing chronic and acute illnesses remotely is possible. Tools and techniques are emerging all the time to help patients keep their conditions under control without traveling to a doctor’s office or hospital. Just before the pandemic hit, Germany launched a digital health bill that includes provisions to formalize “prescribable applications” that are covered by insurance as tools for doctors and patients to use to improve health outcomes. This is a compelling step toward a virtual-first healthcare ecosystem and could provide a guide for U.S. healthcare providers and legislators to create a more accessible, affordable and scalable system.
Digital health and technology have become foundational to healthcare delivery today. To this end, the World Health Organization (WHO) has launched a robust strategy for how to shape the future of global health through technology. The plan is designed to create a worldwide ecosystem that will “improve health for everyone, everywhere by accelerating the development and adoption of appropriate, accessible, affordable, scalable and sustainable person-centric digital health solutions to prevent, detect and respond to epidemics and pandemics [and] developing infrastructure and applications that enable countries to use health data to promote health and well-being.”
The key to achieving these goals will be to pivot on what has worked and what has not so far amid this season of change and rapid transformation. Many lessons have surfaced, but as the industry continues learning and adapting through the remainder of the pandemic and its aftermath, one thing we do know is that patients are satisfied, all things considered.
A recent Kyruus survey (via Healthcare IT News) found that 75% of virtual patients were happy with their care experiences during the pandemic, indicating that a large majority of people will likely continue using digital health in some form even as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. In addition to high patient satisfaction, NRC Health found that 95% of consumers still hold their healthcare providers in high regard, a figure that has only increased despite a year that tested the bounds of the healthcare industry.
To capitalize on consumer trust and build on this momentum in the digital space, I believe healthcare in the U.S. must embrace physician-centered and patient-centered technology integrations and remain open to new innovations that facilitate stronger partnerships between patients and their full bench of healthcare providers.
From treating the whole patient to integrating preventative care to managing care remotely as much as possible, these are just a few of the ways technology can improve the patient-provider relationship — and the care experience overall — as the industry continues to shift to a more consumer-focused model of care. However, while technology is and will continue to be transformational to the future of healthcare, effectively using it and juxtaposing it with human understanding and compassion will be the balancing act of healthcare leaders for years to come.