So long, 2016, we’ve officially begun a new orbit around the sun. It’s becoming a new year’s tradition for me to don my mystic robes, gaze deep into my son’s Magic 8 Ball and come up with predictions for the future of virtual care in the year ahead. (If the new year has you feeling nostalgic, check out my forecasts for 2015 and 2016.) So, let’s dive in.
1. Demonstrable ROI will be a requirement
Magic 8 Ball response: “Signs point to yes”
To date, the return health systems receive from their virtual care investments has been shadowy and not clearly understood. In fact, when I asked my Magic 8 Ball about the ROI of traditional telemedicine, it said, “Reply hazy try again.”
Some of this ambiguity is due to the relative newness of patient-to-provider virtual care. During the early stages of adoption, throwing things at the wall to see what sticks isn’t an unreasonable strategy. Alternatively, ROI has been a smoke and mirrors game with traditional telemedicine companies decreasing health system investment and inflating adoption hopes. But as virtual care becomes increasingly mainstream, clouding ROI in mystery or promoting unsustainable models will no longer be acceptable (tweet this).
In 2017, Health systems are going to expect a holistic, clear view of the return on their virtual care investment. That will include elements like how virtual care is helping to attract and retain patients and produce positive health outcomes.
2. Health systems will have higher expectations for care quality
Magic 8 Ball response: “Without a doubt”
2016 saw several high-profile telemedicine quality studies published, and traditional telemedicine did not come out looking great. Hospitals and health systems understand the need to increase access by offering online care, but are unwilling to launch services that could negatively impact their quality ratings. As a consequence, quality will become a much larger evaluation factor in areas including:
- Clinical quality: Health systems will require hard data on clinical quality for care provided via digital channels. If not already in place, telemedicine and virtual care companies will need to find ways to collect and make this data available to their clients.
- Interoperability: Electronic Medical Record (EMR) integration is no longer a “nice-to-have;” it’s a requirement for maintaining continuity of care and effectively tracking patients’ health data.
- Data, reporting and analytics: Real-time data will be increasingly important, and health systems will require means of accessing and analyzing the performance of their virtual care service.
3. Driving internal adoption of virtual care will be a priority
Magic 8 Ball response: “Most likely”
Patient demand for virtual care continues to rise. My Magic 8 Ball says, “You may rely on it.” If that’s not enough for you, a recent survey by Rock Health found that 46% of consumers are active digital health adopters, up from 19% the previous year. The upshot is health systems will need their providers fully engaged and supportive of this mode of care delivery.
This year, health systems will focus on change management, provider engagement and making a cultural shift toward embracing virtual care and other digital health technologies (tweet this). Fortunately for health systems, online channels are gaining traction as a mode of care delivery. For example, a study by the Robert Graham Center found that 85% of physicians would consider using telehealth. This acceptance by physicians should make change management and the cultural shift toward embracing virtual access points much easier.
4. Policy support for digital health including virtual care will increase
Magic 8 Ball response: “Outlook good”
2016 saw a great deal of legislative movement in the area of digital health and virtual care. According to the Center for Connected Health Policy, more than 150 pieces of telemedicine-related legislation had been introduced in 44 states as of August. I anticipate a lot more movement on the legislative front for the coming year. It doesn’t hurt that a recent survey by the Federation of State Medical Boards identified “telemedicine” as “the most important medical regulatory topic to state medical boards.”
I also expect that, similar to recent legislation that passed in Wisconsin and Michigan, the policy we’ll see coming in 2017 will be friendly to digital health in general and virtual care in particular. Much of this policy will be driven, or at least influenced, by health systems seeking the best option to bring high quality, convenient care to their patient populations in a way that meets their business objectives.
5. Leading virtual care providers will expand to support more service lines
Magic 8 Ball response: “Signs point to yes”
Virtual care is increasingly venturing out of the acute urgent care space and into supporting a wider range of service lines. This means that virtual care providers will need to identify ways of meeting a wider array of health system needs, likely including forays into longitudinal care such as chronic condition management and/or post-operative care.
Health Systems Move Into the Driver’s Seat
Going through my list, you might have noticed a theme (beyond my surprisingly positive run with the Magic 8 Ball): Health systems are increasingly impacting the direction of this industry. Decision makers at leading health systems are getting more sophisticated about technology; have greater insight into patient and provider satisfaction, engagement, and expectations; and will require real value from their virtual care partner(s). And I, for one, am looking forward to it. “It is decidedly so.”