Guest Column | June 8, 2018

Why Virtual Care Is The "New" Telehealth

By Lee Horner, Synzi

HTO Telehealth

The term “telehealth” may soon be obsolete. Although telehealth has come a long way since the first radiologic images were sent via telephone in 1948, the delivery of care via telehealth is undergoing a seismic shift as healthcare organizations, providers, and patients are embracing virtual care. As the next generation of telehealth, virtual care “goes beyond” traditional telehealth by helping healthcare organizations improve care delivery, optimize workflows, and enhance patient engagement, while avoiding excess costs.

From Improving Access To Care To Improving Quality Of Care

At its inception, telehealth was viewed as a means to better connect rural populations (or those with difficulties in accessing available care) to care which wasn’t necessarily within convenient reach. However, access to convenient care is only part of the puzzle; patients must be able to also access quality care which best meets their condition as well as their urgency. According to the Institute of Medicine, healthcare quality is defined as "the degree to which healthcare services for individuals and populations increase the likelihood of desired health outcomes and are consistent with current professional knowledge." The IOM dimensionalizes quality in terms of the following properties or domains: effectiveness, efficiency, equity, patient centeredness, safety, and timeliness.

In terms of healthcare, the rural population has critical gaps in both access and quality. Although an estimated one in five Americans live and work in rural areas across the nation, there are 2,157 Health Professional Shortage Areas in rural areas compared to 910 in urban areas. Almost a third of America’s hospitals are Critical Access Hospitals. The Rural Health Information Hub reports that 19.5 percent of rural adults describe their health status as fair/poor vs. 15.6 percent of their urban counterparts. Rural residents have more frequent occurrences of diabetes and coronary heart disease than residents of non-rural areas. This means that the rural population has challenges in accessing quality-yet-convenient care. Without requiring transportation time and expenses to reach the right provider or the right care facility, the rural resident may be left without the ability to access quality care in the most convenient way. With a virtual care platform, patients can be connected to the quality care they need, when they need it most. By enabling consults with remote and/or offsite specialists, providers can easily reach the right specialists and obtain critical consults, improving access to care and the quality of the diagnosis. In addition, the virtual care platform can be used to follow up with the rural resident by scheduling reminders and sending appointments for post-discharge virtual visits via the communication channel of the patient’s choice – e.g., text message, SMS, email, or even a phone call. Follow-up care can be provided in a cost-effective way (for providers and patients) while minimizing the risk of appointment no-shows.

From Delivering Fragmented Care To Collaborating On Integrated Care

Existing workflows can be optimized with a virtual care platform which streamlines coordination and communication across a patient’s care team and across the various settings/facilities where the patient may reside during the transition of care.

Using a virtual care platform, the care team can conduct virtual meetings to bring together key team members, without requiring others to travel to other locations to ensure care is well coordinated at the various transition points. During these patient-centric calls, any care team member can raise critical questions and concerns for the broader team to address in real time, and potentially make significant changes to the treatment plan or arrange for transportation to the next care setting.

From Providing Patient Education To Facilitating Patient Empowerment

Technology is reshaping how patients practice self-care. Instead of distributing paper pamphlets to patients (or, more recently, directing patients to a portal for online videos and patient education materials), providers can now engage patients in their care, pre- and post-procedure. With a virtual care platform, providers can remind patients to refrain from eating or drinking before certain procedures via email, SMS, text or a quick video call. Patients can express last-minute questions before going to the hospital, which deepens their understanding, while also setting expectations regarding “what happens next” while at the hospital and after the procedure.

With a virtual care platform, providers can also check in with patients, monitoring their progress while also motivating better adherence to the prescribed treatment plan. One-way communication (from provider to patient) is now replaced by an interactive conversation where the provider learns more about the patient’s day-to-day habits and sees a glimpse of the patient’s actual lifestyle. The conversation can be tailored in real time to the patient’s current situation – their home environment, their medicine cabinet, their pantry, etc. – making the communication more interactive and impactful. Patient education about one’s condition, expectations during recovery, and treatment plans can continue to be reinforced during the provider-to-patient conversations. As a result, patients better internalize their role in transitioning from inpatient to outpatient – and how to not only receive care but also practice self-care in their own day-to-day behaviors.

From Thinking About Virtual Care To Deploying Virtual Care

Successful virtual care programs engage all stakeholders early on. Providers and specialists need to understand when to use virtual care to either augment or replace ineffective communications with their patients. The ideal virtual care platform is intuitive and easy to use for both healthcare professionals and their patients.

A healthcare organization’s leadership needs to also actively buy in and support the deployment of a virtual care platform. Setting goals and key metrics upfront – and measuring impact at various milestones – will reinforce the value of virtual care in strengthening an organization’s brand, reputation, and most importantly, its impact on the community it serves. Metrics can include KPIs such as time to consult fulfillment, diagnostic accuracy, staff utilization, patient adherence, readmissions rate, patient and staff satisfaction, and, ultimately, financial and health-related outcomes.

About The Author

Lee Horner is the CEO of Synzi. Lee is responsible for corporate strategy and development at Synzi, with an emphasis on revenue growth, product direction and customer satisfaction. Recognized as an innovator in technology and healthcare, Lee is focused on using technology to advance the timing and quality of care delivery. His career includes over 25 years of enterprise operating experience, with a proven track record in creating and operating successful organizations that develop new technologies designed to transform the healthcare IT industry.