Guest Column | September 28, 2020

Shifting Towards Virtual Care, But What Is Virtual Care?

By Josh Weiner, CEO of SR Health by Solutionreach

Telehealth Remote Healthcare

If patients of past generations could get a quick peek into the incredible changes that have taken place in the healthcare industry, they would likely be astounded. One big change is that of virtual care. Today, it is not only possible but often preferable for patients to receive care without ever seeing a doctor in person. And while the shift to virtual care has been gaining momentum for some time, the pandemic has only accelerated this process.

In early 2020, SR Health by Solutionreach collected some of the last known data about pre-COVID-19 patient communication preferences. At that time, an extensive study was commissioned to better understand patients’ communication likes and dislikes at four key parts of the patient journey: scheduling, patient care, financial, and patient outreach.

Recognizing the unique situation unfolding, SR Health conducted an additional survey after COVID-19 was in full swing to gain an understanding of how the pandemic had impacted these patient communication preferences. By comparing the two results, the industry has gained crucial insight into where enterprise healthcare organizations should focus their efforts to streamline communication for increased efficiency and patient satisfaction. The findings include:

  • A significant drop in preference for live telephone calls. Before COVID-19, 45 percent of patients preferred phone calls. Today, just 31 percent say the same.
  • A desire for email communication. The number of patients wanting email communication has more than doubled since the beginning of COVID-19 (17 percent pre-COVID-19 vs 37 percent during-COVID-19)
  • Plummeting patient satisfaction when it comes to communication. Patient responses indicate less timely communication with their providers, a tougher time getting questions answered, and not being “heard” during the pandemic.

It is increasingly apparent that patients are becoming more concerned with increased communication and a focus on virtual care. In many ways, the two go hand in hand. We know that telehealth use, instigated by the unique circumstances of COVID-19, has exploded in 2020. But virtual care is so much more than just a telehealth link. It encompasses all the ways healthcare providers may remotely communicate with their patients. By focusing solely on the telemedicine aspect of virtual care, the desire for increased patient communication can easily get missed. Instead, healthcare organizations should set goals to boost both digital communication AND care. This includes aspects such as:

  • Two-way text message: With the preference for live telephone calls falling to just 31 percent, text message is quickly becoming one of the most important communication tools for healthcare organizations. And while automated reminders are important, two-way text is critical in the virtual care process. Not only can patients quickly get answers to questions and concerns via text, it is also important when conducting virtual visits. It is through text message that you can provide instructions and links for telehealth. If a visit is in-person, the reminder should contain pre-screening information (i.e., call first if you have COVID-19 symptoms). If you are using a “park & text” waiting room, that should be included in your messaging as well.
  • Patient intake: Going hand-in-hand with the explosion in telehealth is the use of digital intake forms. As patients become more familiar with using online intake forms for their telehealth visits, they also increasingly want to use them for in-person visits. Digital forms not only allow patients to be seen virtually to complete their forms, but they also communicate critical information to patients who are not seen in person.
  • Telemedicine: Obviously, central to the virtual care experience is the telemedicine visit. To ensure the keystone of virtual care is top-notch, there are a few things that should not be overlooked during this process. Be sure to use technology that includes real-time audio and video (synchronous). It should be a HIPAA-compliant, secure, high-resolution tool that is easy to use for both providers and patients. This means that it shouldn’t require downloads or logins. In fact, it’s best if patients can just click a link and be in the digital waiting room. Creating a simple, comfortable experience for your patients is the key to success.
  • Digital bill pay: If a patient is not seen in person, it is critical that the payment process also can occur virtually. This is where digital payment comes into play. A mobile bill pay solution makes it easy for patients to pay their copay ahead of a telehealth visit as well as post-visit balances. In addition, sending a quick text message to remind patients of overdue balances is an easy way to keep communication channels open.

One day this pandemic will be just a memory, something young medical students and hospital administrators alike will study to broaden the ability to respond in the future. But one thing is likely to not be a memory—virtual care. While COVID-19 may have been a springboard to accelerate its use, patient preferences had already been shifting that way for some time. By leveraging each aspect of the virtual care experience, healthcare organizations can improve the quality of the patient experience and streamline their processes to promote efficiency and patient satisfaction.

About The Author

Josh Weiner is the CEO of SR Health by Solutionreach. He joined Solutionreach from Summit Partners, a leading global growth equity firm. Through his work with Summit Partners, Josh served on the Solutionreach board of directors for three years. Before Summit Partners, he was a consultant with McKinsey & Company. Josh is a graduate of Stanford University and resides in Salt Lake City with his wife, daughter, and golden retriever Willow (who often makes cameos at the Solutionreach office). Josh and his family spend as much time as possible exploring the natural wonders of Utah's mountains and deserts. Connect with him on LinkedIn @joshfweiner.