Some Americans stopped going to doctor when the pandemic hit the United States – or at least, they stopped going in person. Although the coronavirus has in many ways ravaged the nation’s health care system, experts say that the use of virtual care and remote monitoring have made notable strides in transforming the landscape in light of the current environment.
“COVID has certainly acted as a great propeller towards a lot more,” said Suja Chandrasekaran, senior executive vice president and chief information and digital officer for CommonSpirit Health, during a webinar hosted by U.S. News & World Report on July 30. CommonSpirit Health, headquartered in Chicago, includes over 700 care centers in 21 states.
Prior to the pandemic, providers such as CommonSpirit Health, Atrium Health (based in North Carolina) and Banner Health (based in Phoenix) had already been working on their capabilities of telehealth and other virtual programs. Scott Rissmiller, executive vice president and chief physician executive of Atrium Health, described the progress at the time as “slow and incremental.”
Photos: States Pause Reopening
The unprecedented impact of the pandemic has dramatically accelerated virtual care as more and more Americans practice social distancing and reduce face-to-face contact. That has allowed health care providers to better observe the outcomes and potential of digital care as a service during and after these times.
For instance, Atrium Health, which includes about 40 hospitals and some 900 care units across the Carolinas and Georgia, established a COVID-19 virtual hospital in March as a means of providing safe and convenient treatment to patients with the virus who did not need physical hospitalization to help curb the spread of infection. According to Rissmiller, the hospital has since served around 12,000 patients and has received a great deal of positive feedback.
At Banner Health, which operates about 28 hospitals across six states, a tele-ICU has accelerated its ambulatory program since the beginning of the pandemic and is on target to complete about 140,000 to 200,000 more virtual visits than they’ve done in the past, according to James Roxburgh, CEO for Banner Telehealth.
“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the foundation we’re building for telehealth literally within the last two and a half months,” Roxburgh said.
The realm of virtual care, however, is not without its glitches and shortcomings. The panelists shared common concerns about the funding and technology needed to support the continual advancement of telehealth programs, including the government’s role in providing reimbursement waivers and ensuring broadband connectivity across the nation, especially in rural and underserved areas.
“We are at a point where if the waivers and the coverage runs out, I think it will be a significant challenge to continue the progress and the rate of improvement we’re making around virtual.” Rissmiller said. “The ROI does enable us to care for more patients with fewer individuals, but the reimbursement has to stay in place, it is my belief, in order for this to be sustainable long term.”
“If you don’t have good connectivity, you can’t have a virtual visit,” Roxburgh added. “That’s sort of the basis for making everything work. You’ve got to have a good audio and visual connection.”
The thought of current health care inequities becoming exacerbated due to costs and technology remains a lingering possibility, but it’s also possible that the continual pursuit of virtual solutions in health care gives an opportunity for the opposite to occur.
Michael Robinson, vice president for North America health care at software company VMware, related today’s technological advancements in virtual health to a previous “leapfrog” from the early to mid-2000s.
“I think we’re seeing the same kind of precedent where you can utilize mobile technology to solve some of those inequities,” Robinson said during the webinar. “I think that the technology can create a broader chasm, and what we want to do is actually shrink the chasm.”
Chandrasekaran shared similar sentiments about the potential for virtual care and the need for its investments, drawing from her previous experience as an executive in the retail industry and watching the increase in mobile shopping among a certain income demographic that they didn’t think would happen.
“The adoption of technology … and being able to embrace commerce in those different modalities almost became an equalizer,” Chandrasekaran said. “And I would like to see the same in this industry in the different ways in which we’re provisioning care.”