There’s little doubt that virtual care is poised to transform the healthcare industry. An aspect of telemedicine that involves real-time “virtual visits” between patients and clinicians using modern communications technology (like videoconferencing and mobile apps), virtual care has seen explosive growth in recent years.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the use of virtual care in the healthcare industry increased by 20% from 2015 to 2016, while the number of large employers offering virtual visits was projected to rise from about 48% in 2016 to almost 75% in 2017. And, as Fortune reported in October, 2016, more than half of Kaiser Permanente’s patient visits are already being performed virtually.
Impressive as those numbers are, they’re also not particularly surprising, given the wide range of advantages offered by virtual care. And these benefits extend to all members of the healthcare continuum, including:
- Patients, who enjoy greater convenience, more access, and lower costs
- Doctors, nurses and caregivers, who experience more flexible schedules and improved access to patients and information
- Healthcare leaders and administrators, who can lower medical expenses and boost operational efficiency
How Virtual Care Benefits Patients
Perhaps the most salient benefit that virtual care offers patients is convenience. Instead of traveling to and from a hospital, clinic or other healthcare facility to meet a doctor or clinician, virtual visits empower people to confer with their caregivers from the comfort of their own home.
And it isn’t just about comfort. In rural areas, the ratio of patients to primary care physicians is less than 40 doctors for every 100,000 people, notes the National Rural Health Association — compared to 53.3 physicians per 100,000 patients in urban regions. In these areas, virtual care offers not just convenience but actual access to caregivers that patients wouldn’t otherwise experience.
Beyond primary care, virtual care also increases access to specialists who may be even further out of range — not just for patients in rural areas, but even for those who live in small cities or suburbs. Patients may also experience lower costs with virtual care, which tend to cost just $40 or $50 per visit, notes Heidi Godman at the Harvard Health Blog — or “about half the cost of an in-person visit.’”
How Virtual Care Benefits Physicians, Nurses, Clinicians & Caregivers
Convenience is also a major benefit of virtual care for physicians, nurses and clinicians. As Dr. Joseph Scherger told Medical Economics, on-site visits “are a time-intensive and wasteful way to address certain needs that could be met” by virtual care, which he describes as “a brief and efficient way of answering people’s questions and delivering care.”
This efficiency can contribute to easing workloads and reducing stress — an important factor in our era of widespread clinician burnout. Dr. Adam Licurse writes in the Harvard Business Review that “as we focus our energy on provider burnout, we hope that virtual care will allow for more-flexible provider schedulesover time, permitting clinicians to provide some care from outside their practices if they wish.”
Dr. Scherger also points to continuity of care as another benefit for doctors, stating that telehealth technology has given him a “greater continuity and deeper relationships” with his patients that have opted in to virtual messaging.
Doctors can also consult each other more readily using virtual care technology — “sometimes to make split-second decisions on heart attacks and strokes,” as the WSJ report points out. That immediacy also applies to the doctor-patient relationship, allowing for more timely interventions.
“It’s almost like being at the bedside — I can’t shock a patient [restart his heart with electrical paddles], but I can give an order to the nurses there,” as Vinaya Sermadevi, a critical-care specialist, told the WSJ.
How Virtual Care Benefits Healthcare Organizations
Dr. Licurse goes on to describe how the implementation of virtual care can cut the prevalence of no-shows, saving time for providers and cutting costs for the healthcare organizations that employ them. He adds that this “can improve quality and help prevent costly downstream events, such as hospital admissions or readmissions.”
Pointing to a chart review at his facility that showed a 50% reduction in referrals thanks to the use of virtual consultations, Dr. Licurse adds that, from a cost perspective, virtual care led to “fewer unnecessary specialist visits — a significant driver of medical spend.”
In addition to helping lower costs, the reduction of unnecessary referrals can provide a healthcare facility or organization with greater capacity to provide “complex and appropriate specialty care,” he adds.
Related: Healthcare Solutions