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Transforming Telemedicine into Virtual Care

There is a long-running discussion on what to call this next generation of healthcare tools. Is it telemedicine? mHealth? Virtual care? Connected care? For the time being, “telemedicine” is in the ascendency, but that appears to be changing.

I have always been challenged by the term “telemedicine,” and I’m going to spend a little time in the coming weeks framing up a way to look at the difference between the term and delivery model that has been prevalent for decades, compared to the care delivery tools and models that will carry us forward.

At the heart, Telemedicine is a term born in the 1960’s, a Brubeck-esque fusion of tele-matic modes of communication (phone and video) and medicine. This history is important to understand so we can better usher in the new generation of tools and nomenclature.

Let’s start with “tele.” It sounds like “8-track” to me. It harkens back to a time when I would look up Domino’s Pizza in the phone book. To when I had to avoid tripping over the phone cord as my mom talked in the hallway. It feels like green vinyl in a Pinto. Like the anti-Mackclemore leisure suit at the Salvation Army. It’s stale and, let’s be honest, out-dated.

I’ll frame this up with a few simple word associations:

Telemedicine = Testing
Virtual Care = Viability

For some, having a healthcare encounter over the phone is novel and new – but it’s not state-of-the-art. This is an important distinction between our first EXPERIENCE with telemedicine and its relevance as a term for future experiences. I would make a significant wager that the majority of our healthcare interactions over the next 10 years will not be the phone calls or 1-1 video visits with a healthcare provider the industry has been testing since the 60s. Instead, we will experience of stream of healthcare that disposes of the analog shackles, unlocks new economic models not built around transactions and delivers durable value.

Telemedicine = Analog
Virtual Care  = Digital

The telemedicine gene pool is analog. The other day, I took a cab from downtown Miami to the airport. The cabbie was genial enough, but when we got to the airport, he frowned when I wanted to use my credit card. He manually typed in my card info onto his terminal, submitted for approval (queue dial-up noises) and waited for the print-out. The printer ran out of paper – so he had to dig through his glove box for a replacement roll, re-thread it and re-print. It was a stark reminder of a time—not long ago—when getting an analog ride to the airport was common place. Telemedicine is like that transaction: labored and inefficient.

Telemedicine = Transactions
Virtual Care = Value

Finally, there’s a transactional feel to the term: I “do” telemedicine; I “practice” telemedicine. It implies a direct connection between a patient and provider – or the healthcare ecosystem. We’re at an important transition in healthcare delivery. The combination of moving care from brick-and-mortar to the digital world and changing payment from fee-for-service into value-based care is forcing healthcare providers and the innovators who support them to develop new ways of providing value.

So there you have it. Telemedicine is dead – well, on life support. Virtual care is the future, and the future looks bright.

Next time, I’ll dig a bit deeper into the testing and viability differences between telemedicine and virtual care. Until then, don’t trip on the telemedicine cords in the hallway.