It’s no secret the healthcare industry is facing some challenges. Factors like patient access, achieving consistent health outcomes across populations, rising healthcare costs, and growing physician burnout are causing healthcare organizations to strategize around how to make healthcare in the U.S. more effective. These challenges form the foundation of the quadruple aim – a set of goals designed to usher in positive change in the healthcare landscape.
Achieving the Quadruple Aim
Significant improvements in these areas will necessarily be facilitated through the use of technology. Virtual care, sometimes called telemedicine, can help health systems support improvements in each of these key areas.
There are two distinct modes of virtual care: Synchronous, including phone and video, and asynchronous or “store-and-forward” like Zipnosis’ online adaptive interview. An asynchronous solution collects and organizes patient-provided health history and symptom information, enabling providers to access it at a later time. Providers then make a diagnosis and develop a recommended treatment plan, which is sent back to the patient. Asynchronous technology, specifically, is instrumental to achieving the quadruple aim due to its inherent efficiency.
So, how exactly does virtual care impact the quadruple aim? Let’s take a look:
Aim: Improve Patient Access
Access to care is a growing concern in the healthcare industry. With the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2008, millions of people have insurance coverage. But this isn’t enough. Access is more than insurance; it’s the ability to receive care when and how a patient needs it. And that remains a challenge today.
Merritt Hawkins’ 2017 Survey of Physician Appointment Wait Times found that in the U.S., the average wait time for a new patient appointment is 24.1 days – a 30 percent increase since 2014. This can be explained in part by the growing gap between the number of practicing physicians and the population for which they care. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, there is a current shortfall of between 14,000 and 25,000 physicians across all disciplines. They further project a shortage of up to 100,000 physicians by the year 2030. Access is a particular challenge in rural areas, where hospitals have been closing at a rate of one per month since 2010.
Virtual care helps address the challenge of patient access by breaking down the geographic barriers between physicians and patients. Using a virtual care service, a patient that lives hours from the nearest clinic or hospital can receive care without having to worry about the drive. A study by the UC Davis School of Medicine found that by receiving care online, patients avoided driving millions of miles. What’s more, a virtual care solution that offers asynchronous care is available on-demand, meaning that patients can access care in a time that works for them, rather than having to schedule an appointment. This care delivery model also helps physicians to unlock marginal capacity, enabling them to safely and effectively diagnose and treat more patients than with in-person or video visits.
Aim: Improve Health Outcomes
Often viewed through the lens of population health, achieving consistent health outcomes has become increasingly challenging in the face of growing care fragmentation. Instead of offering a solution, direct-to-consumer telemedicine companies who deliver care outside the continuum only exacerbate the fragmented care environment. Conversely, virtual care delivered by a health system offers the same patient benefits while facilitating effective coordination of care and supporting consistent patient record documentation.
Achieving consistent health outcomes requires consistency in care delivery. This is another area where virtual care can offer a solution. By developing protocols for care on a foundation of national best practices and incorporating organic clinical decision support in the form of diagnosis and treatment pathways, virtual care can support consistent, guideline-adherent care. And because an asynchronous model captures a large volume of structured data, virtual care can help health systems measure things like guideline adherence and antibiotic stewardship.
Aim: Lower Overall Healthcare Spend
It’s impossible to have a complete conversation about healthcare in the U.S. without discussing the continued growth of healthcare spend. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), U.S. healthcare spending reached $3.2 trillion in 2015, accounting for approximately 18 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. CMS data shows that between 2010 and 2015, the average annual growth in national health expenditures was 4.3 percent, more than double inflation.
The costs of healthcare are born in varying degrees by insurance companies, employers, health systems and healthcare providers, individuals, and the taxpaying public. One trend in healthcare is the assumption of greater risk by both individuals and health systems, through high deductible health plans and value-based care, respectively.
Virtual care holds the potential to curtail healthcare spending on a broad scale. While research needs to be done to verify the impacts on various parties, early indicators are that virtual care offers both patients and health systems a means of delivering and receiving care at a lower cost than in-person care. Moreover, virtual care has the potential to reduce emergency department usage by siphoning off those seeking convenience for non-emergency care and by treating conditions early that may could become emergencies if not treated.
Virtual care is also expanding outside of the realm of urgent/ambulatory care to support longitudinal needs such as post-operative care or chronic condition management. This means that a future state could see the cost savings from virtual care – to patients, health systems, and payors – grow exponentially.
Aim: Reduce Physician Burnout/Improve Physician Engagement
Simply put, the healthcare industry – in any country, under any circumstances – does not function without healthcare providers. And providers are becoming burned out in record numbers. In fact, this is a top factor contributing to the growing physician shortage mentioned above. One of the key reasons cited for physician burnout is the increased clerical burden physicians are undertaking.
Virtual care, particularly the asynchronous model, significantly reduces clerical burden by aggregating patient-generated symptom information and inputting it directly into the EMR through advanced integration capabilities. As a result, virtual care enables physicians to focus on practicing medicine rather than documentation. Further, routing routine health concerns to the virtual care platform enables physicians to focus on more complex health concerns, putting their energy to the patients who really need their expertise.
Healthcare Going Forward
As we work to improve healthcare for health systems, physicians, and most importantly, patients, it is vital that we look to new technologies like virtual care to help achieve those ends. Virtual care offers clear solutions to help the healthcare industry achieve each element of the quadruple aim. And that bodes well for all of us.
About the Author
Dr. William Riley is a Professor in the School for the Science of Health Care Delivery at Arizona State University, where he teaches process engineering, health finance, and health care quality and safety design. He previously served as the Associate Dean for the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota.
To his present role in academics, Dr. Riley brings 25 years of senior executive experience in health care organizations, including serving as President and CEO of Pacific Medical Center in Seattle, Washington; CEO of Aspen Medical Group in St. Paul, Minnesota; Senior Vice President at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota in St. Paul; and Senior Vice President of St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center/Ramsey Clinic.
Dr. Riley’s research areas include quality improvement and patient safety, with several nationwide and international projects currently underway. He is the author of more than 60 articles related to quality management, patient safety and health care management, and has co-authored two books on performance improvement in health care.
A past chair of the Public Health Accreditation Board, Dr. Riley serves on several boards, including the Fairview Physicians Associates (FPA), an affiliate of Fairview Health Systems. He received his PhD from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.