Over the past ten years or so, telemedicine has taken off.
A recent report says the telemedicine market will be worth $113.1 billion by 20251, and there are many similar reports predicting its global market value, surveys and studies compiling and analyzing provider and patient attitudes toward it, and countless articles discussing how telemedicine is truly the future of care delivery. But is it?
To answer that question, I’d like to look at an unlikely parallel: consumer banking. Back in the 90s, the transition of standard, in-person banking activities to automated phone systems was a big deal. “Telebanking” was billed as the latest, disruptive technology; banking for consumers was no longer tied to the standard 9-5 bank lobby hours – it was a revolution in convenience.
If that sounds silly, it’s because you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would willingly choose an automated phone system over the more convenient online and app-based banking available today.
Telemedicine today is much like telebanking in the 90s. Namely, it’s the first step toward transforming healthcare into a consumer-centric, convenience-first experience. But, it’s only the first step.
Taking the Next Step
If telemedicine is the first step in making care delivery truly convenient, there needs to be a next step, and that is virtual care. The terms are frequently used interchangeably, but there are significant differences between the two.
Telemedicine, like telebanking, relies on a dated business model and analog technology. By focusing on synchronous interactions like phone calls and video chats, telemedicine is stuck in the age of call centers, carts, and cords. In fact, patients who want care remotely, need to find a quiet, private place to talk or worry about personal health information being overheard by co-workers or even strangers. Additionally, health systems are stuck with costly implementations requiring heavy investments in hardware.
Conversely, virtual care’s digital DNA eliminates the challenges inherent in traditional telemedicine. It doesn’t require special hardware, it doesn’t need to be backed up by a call center, and it doesn’t create digital data silos. Instead, virtual care enhances efficiency by enabling individual providers to safely and effectively care for more patients than ever before – without increasing working hours. The implications of this for the healthcare industry are massive.
Fee-for-Service Care in a Value-Based World
The secret to telemedicine’s nascent success is it feels familiar and comfortable. As an experience, there’s little difference between a video visit and in-person visit except for the patient’s location. The trouble with telemedicine is the challenges remain the same. Providers still spend the same amount of time (some estimate more time) treating patients via telemedicine. Telemedicine hasn’t fundamentally improved the inefficient workflows and time-consuming data entry that come with traditional in-person care models.
Virtual care offers health systems and patients an alternative – a technology and experience that transcend the norms of healthcare without sacrificing quality. More important, by eliminating the necessity of one to one interaction (for certain cases and conditions), virtual care provides a scalability and efficiency that telemedicine just can’t match.
As the healthcare industry transitions away from fee-for-service payment models to value-based reimbursement, healthcare organizations need this scalability and efficiency to remain viable. While telemedicine promises ROI based on inflated, and frankly unsustainable, utilization, virtual care flips the economic model on its head by effectively removing the transactional cost of delivering care. With virtual care, the ROI is tied to larger, more impactful metrics like improved access, long-term cost savings, and downstream revenue from patient acquisition and retention – not to payments for individual visits.
Healthcare of the Future
More than any benefit to health systems or providers, it is patients who will drive the transition from telemedicine to virtual care. Changes in healthcare policy, the rise of high deductible health plans, and other factors are making patients increasingly savvy about their healthcare spending. As digital technology continues to shape how people interact with the products and services they use every day (it’s not just banking and healthcare), patient expectations for a fully online, more convenient experience will likewise drive the transition from telemedicine to virtual care.
We all know that telebanking phased out as technology evolved. Faster, more secure internet connections, better data processors, and the explosion of smartphone technology all combined to make telebanking obsolete. Similarly, though it looks like telemedicine’s star is rising, these same technologies and the consumer expectations that come with them, spell the beginning of the end for telemedicine. And, that’s good news for both health systems and patients.