Threading the Virtual Care Needle

Bob Abrahamson, Chief Marketing Officer

Generally, I am not very handy. When itThreading a Needle Illustration comes to home repair, successfully changing a light bulb is a cause for celebration. But I can sew. Not elaborate outfits mind you. I can do basic hemming, replace a button, patch old jeans.  It’s not hard.  Except for threading the needle.  That usually takes me more time than the repair job at hand. For me, it’s making that initial connection that is tricky.

So, I believe it is with virtual care. We have the tools. They have been around for quite some time. The pandemic drove utilization of virtual care in the spring of 2020.  Use cases seem to abound. In fact, I am going to see a new neurologist that only treats patients via telemedicine. Yet, getting to the point where “virtual care” =  “care”; where it becomes second nature is going to be tricky.

Consider the following.  After an initial surge, use of telehealth dropped and continues to do so.   Some thought telehealth visits would level off at 15 – 20% of outpatient visits depending on the situation. Yet as reported recently here, a year into the pandemic, only 8% of outpatient visits are virtual care visits.

There is also a disconnect between the patient and provider as it pertains to the convenience factor surrounding virtual care.  As reported by McKinsey here, there is general agreement amongst stakeholders that virtual encounters definitely creates convenience for the patient.  Approximately 65% of people across the board agree.  However, 36%  of physicians found it more convenient for them.  This is not surprising when you think about it.

The telehealth encounter, from the patient perspective, occurs on a personal devices with which they are familiar, can take place in the location of their choosing, and increasingly does not require downloading an application. The patient is saved from the hassle of travel, getting time off from work, sitting in the waiting room, waiting in the exam room. While there is the sacrifice of the personal connection which should not be understated, and in some times should not be sacrificed, the behavior change burden on the patient side is nominal.

Not necessarily so for the provider. Most providers have been practicing in what the McKinsey article classifies as IRL or in-real life. Historical medical training, especially for older providers, that created challenges in effectively communicating with patients as we transition to consumer-centric care are sure to be exacerbated as encounters are moved online. Layer on top of this what can be significant technology, workflow and documentation challenges (how long have we been talking about HIT interoperability) and it is easy to understand the behavior change burden on the provider can be substantial.

Which brings us to the tricky part. I find that I can thread the eye of the needle with relative ease when I first fold the thread.  Establishing virtual care won’t be as easy. I get that. I also recognize access barriers and payments issues that need to be addressed.  Infrastructure can be built, and legislation passed.  But behavior change is tricky.  To help bridge the convenience gap, the trick is empathy. I wrote about this earlier from the other side – providers listening with empathy – here

However, as collaborative care is a 2-way street so is practicing empathy.  As we bring on new technology, we’ll be asking a lot of the staff whose life we believe we’ll be making easier. In order for that to happen, we need to practice empathy; understand where providers are coming from and how to best incorporate this new care modality into their current practice regimens.  This will be the trick for successful virtual care implementation and adoption for all stakeholders.

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