Empower patients through virtual engagement 

Empower patients through virtual engagement 
By Peter Barr
Sep 30, 2021

As the COVID-19 pandemic forced unprecedented challenges upon the healthcare sector, it upended traditional approaches to care and pushed both patients and physicians to embrace the realities of virtual care. By early 2021, all sectors of the patient care continuum—including primary and specialist care, behavioral support, and long-term care—were reporting urgent demands for virtual care that often exceeded available capacity.

Many practices turned to existing telemedicine vendors, such as Teladoc, eVisit, and Amwell, or standard online meeting tools, including Zoom and Webex. Whether planned or unintended, the unceasing demand for physician attention created new partnerships, technical innovations, and other medical advancements that established virtual care as a core principle—creating new opportunities to revolutionize patient-provider engagement.

Many larger U.S. health payers have reacted to this dramatic shift by launching proprietary telehealth tools, either through in-house development or acquisition, competing more on cost—free in many cases—rather than the quality of experience. That rapid-development approach forced new views toward delivery of care, with heavy reliance on patient interaction before, during, or after an appointment.

Although the number of virtual care visits has dropped since peaking in 2020 at 70% of total visits, payers expect demand for virtual care to remain above pre-pandemic levels of 8% of all visits. Encouraged by the convenience and reliability of telemedicine, provider attitudes toward technical innovation are evolving.

Physicians must adapt to new standards, such as value-based care, that place a greater emphasis on patient experiences. Patients are now more empowered by technology as they have increased autonomy over how and when they receive care. While telemedicine has fulfilled an immediate need, stakeholders in the healthcare continuum see emerging digital capabilities as a way to further enhance the physician-patient relationship.

The degree to which these participants—patients and providers—leverage digital tools to provide enhanced virtual care will depend on several factors, including:

  1. Convenience, making it easier to access care
  2. Simplicity, users are not encumbered by technical complexities
  3. Interoperability, improving care delivery through consolidated access and connected systems
  4. Reliability, ensuring reliable connections between doctor and patient

Convenience: Making it easier to access care

Over 40% of patients in the U.S. have used virtual health services, as indicated in recent surveys. Among those users, over 60% claimed convenience as the top reason for preferring virtual visits, while another 40% said it is easier to schedule virtual versus in-person appointments.

Providers are also demanding more convenience from the technologies they employ as one way to maximize their patients’ experiences. As patients exercise more influence over provider selection and care decisions, physicians are confronted with the need to simplify the patient experience with increased convenience and reduced barriers to care.

Interactive technologies are one way to make the virtual experience more convenient. Most health payers now offer virtual assistants to connect members with in-network providers based on need and location. In some cases, payer tools will estimate the cost of care for intended services, including out-of-pocket expenses.

Technology is making a difference even at the practice level. Some physician groups are offering app-based tools that give patients more control over scheduling, accessing medical records, and billing inquiries. In every case, efforts to increase convenience in accessing care have positively impacted participant experiences.

Simplicity: Users are not encumbered by technical complexities

When using technology, people naturally prefer solutions that minimize effort and complexity. Studies have shown that humans gravitate toward situations that require less effort. As such, the continued growth and development of virtual care requires a focus on simplicity.

Minimizing the number of features and functions required to schedule, access, and convene a virtual session will attract more caregiver support—just as patients are more likely to accept virtual care options that entail little to no set-up. Today’s tech-savvy patients are drawn to the ease of app-based communication that requires no advanced action other than to click an appointment link received via email or text.

It is reasonable to assume, even in a post-pandemic world, that both physicians and patients will continue to embrace technical innovation as a means to minimize effort, increase access, and optimize the overall healthcare experience.

Interoperability: Improving care delivery through consolidated access and connected systems

Another feature that augments virtual care is the integration of telemedicine into a holistic system of decision support tools that seamlessly exchange patient information in real-time. Also known as “all-in-one” solutions, these interconnected systems channel access to patient medical information through one access point.

Caregivers often feel encumbered by having to obtain and/or document patient information across multiple data sources. By aggregating patient information through a single view, all-in-one portals offer streamlined access to medical history, accelerated next-best actions, and afford more time for dedicated patient care.

Reliability: Ensuring reliable connections between doctor and patient

Finally, the ultimate success of virtual care is only as good as the connection between caregivers and patients. Increasing demand for bandwidth has exposed the lack of access to connectivity among rural communities.

According to recent studies, nearly 50 million people live in areas defined by the CDC as non-urban. Many of those rural or remote residents lack access to both quality care and reliable internet access. Lack of access to quality connectivity, even as user demand has increased, may be one of the biggest obstacles to establishing virtual care as a vehicle for improving healthcare experiences.

Why empowering patients matters and the future of virtual engagement

Virtual care has become a reliable, widely used tool for delivering care. Whether through stand-alone telemedicine platforms or interoperable access points, a growing number of physicians and patients now embrace the convenience and simplicity of virtual care.

Although the reliability and consistency of telemedicine remain a challenge for all stakeholders, most participants expect virtual tools will remain a popular option for delivering care. It’s important to support the continual development of virtual capabilities that facilitate high-quality interactions and promote positive patient experiences.

As your organization seeks to build or expand its telemedicine services, consider adapting these four operating principles to your virtual care plans. Whether you choose to build or buy, the success of your service launch is a function of overcoming user resistance. Crafting a plan that offers convenience, simplicity, interoperability, and reliability increases the likelihood of adoption and continued use. 

ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
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  1. Peter Barr

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