The big argument for telemedicine is that it will improve access to care. But is access what consumers really want?
If providers think about telemedicine as just another channel for giving patients access to their services, they’re missing the bigger picture. When it comes to meeting consumer expectations, traditional health systems and physician clinics aren’t competing against other providers, they’re actually battling Amazon, StubHub, Netflix and every other service that customers already love and rely on.
Amazon just launched “Amazon Prime Now” in the Twin Cities where I live. Do I need day-or-night two-hour delivery for household items and groceries? Probably not, but the convenience blows my mind. I had a similar feeling when I discovered recently that I can use an app to feed my parking meter by our downtown Minneapolis office. Whether it’s the ability to binge-watch entire seasons of TV shows on Netflix or listen to almost any album ever recorded on Spotify, consumers are now primed for (nearly) instant gratification.
Healthcare still operates under a different set of expectations. Patients are viewed as a fixed population with few options for seeking care. Telemedicine and other virtual technologies theoretically expand those options. Coming from a traditional system in which access is tightly controlled, many providers I meet still see new technologies like telemedicine or virtual care either as a threat to their existing delivery model or a cumbersome add-on. I argue that they should view consumer-facing technology platforms as an opportunity to access patients in ways that those patients already expect in other areas of their lives and will increasingly demand from healthcare, too.
Here are three benefits healthcare providers can realize when they leverage a workable telemedicine strategy to do a better job providing patients with service they will value.
- Add new patients
If you ask people what telemedicine looks like, they describe a patient sitting in front of a computer screen talking to a doctor. When’s the last time you ordered anything on Amazon that way? Never. We do it by app when the need arises.
What would that sort of convenience look like in healthcare? It may be hokey but I picture a parent in his or her minivan initiating a doctor visit for the kids while waiting for them to finish some after-school activity.
Telemedicine strategies that force patients and doctors to meet through a screen are awkward interruptions of our lives. But if you can devise a system where patients can initiate a visit by app, and then direct them to a physical healthcare location, e-visit, or virtual diagnosis as needed, you’re helping them manage their care conveniently like they manage every other aspect of their lives.
In our data, we’ve observed that over 50 percent of patients who use this sort of approach are new to that particular health system or provider network. In other words, technologically savvy patients are migrating to convenient access points. And once they’re hooked on that ease, they tend to rely on that healthcare provider for the plurality of their care.
- Provide care in the right place at the right time
As value becomes a priority over volume, providers are being forced to develop strategies to steer patients away from higher cost locations like urgent care or primary care facilities. We’ve noticed that around 60 percent of patients who use virtual care services would have gone to urgent care or primary care facilities instead if they hadn’t had a virtual option.
Employers love virtual care because their employees can receive care when and where they need it without undue expense or disruption to their work lives. Patients love it because it puts an end to the age-old waiting room question, “Why am I here?” We’ve all experienced the frustration of sitting endlessly in a waiting room for a diagnosis or course of treatment when we already know exactly what we need.
And physicians appreciate the opportunity to have meaningful visits for challenging problems rather than cramming their day with patients who could be treated faster and easier elsewhere.
- Avoid “stealage”
The big retailers and pharmacy chains are making a major competitive push for the patients of traditional health systems and provider networks, and they have some big advantages on their side. They already understand customers well and are used to delivering compelling value. What’s more, nearly everyone in the country lives only a few miles from a Walgreens, CVS, or Walmart making it very convenient to shift toward those pharmacists and walk-in clinics.
Providers can combat those advantages if they move quickly. Patients still see health systems and traditional physician clinics as the best source for care. If you counter the convenience factor with a robust virtual care strategy rather than just building e-visits into an EMR, you can retain or recapture patients otherwise inclined to stray. Patients would still prefer to meet the totality of their needs in one system.
The future is fast upon us
Consumers and clinicians expect technology to make things easier and faster. Healthcare is lagging in providing people what they need and want when it comes to convenience, ease and value, not because the technology isn’t there but because managing change is hard. Yes, traditional processes and payment models are burdensome legacies to fight through but customers and clinicians are going to gravitate quickly to better options. You really have a limited time to figure out the right strategy to keep them happy and committed. Start by thinking like a consumer and find partnerships and services to build the capabilities you need.