Adoption of virtual experiences has accelerated with the COVID-19 pandemic. For many individuals, their first telehealth experience occurred due to the pandemic. In fact, virtual care usage spiked in April 2020 at 78 times higher than in February 2020, and has since stabilized at levels 38 times higher than before the pandemic.¹
Members have, and will continue to grow accustomed to these new virtual habits; mediocre experiences that don’t meet or deliver on consumer expectations will be abandoned. The pandemic has exposed serious cracks in the overall healthcare user experience and has highlighted the need to innovate quickly.
Virtual care delivery is a rapidly evolving landscape, and in a time of need, has been put to the test. Some experiences were positive; patients were able to access more resources quickly, without having to physically go to brick-and-mortar practices to see providers. But in other cases technology was a barrier. Over the past couple years, there was so much demand for telehealth that the waiting times were very high, causing an unpleasant member experience. Making this the main reason the member experience was not up to par.
This was a learning experience for both healthcare professionals and providers of digital healthcare delivery.
Identifying barriers to care — and the solutions
After being thrown into the fray of the COVID-19 pandemic, the entirety of the healthcare field was forced to evolve. This evolution happened in multiple ways—including technologically and staffing.
While wait times were short, we set out to make it a goal that people wait less than seven minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week to connect with an Included Health clinician. However, technological barriers still existed for some patients.
According to the CDC, by June 30, 2020, an estimated 41% of U.S. adults had delayed or avoided medical care including urgent or emergency care (12%) and routine care (32%) due to COVID-19 concerns. Avoidance of urgent or emergency care was more prevalent among unpaid caregivers for adults, persons with underlying medical conditions, Black adults, Hispanic adults, young adults, and persons with disabilities.²
Care avoidance caused and continues to cause concern for increases in morbidity, and even possibly mortality, associated with chronic and acute health conditions that go untreated. It has become increasingly apparent that a one-size-fits-all approach in healthcare doesn’t work. It’s important to factor in social determinants of health (SDoHs), people’s experiences, community resources, relationships, and personal resources.
Meeting the needs of the future
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to improve—thanks to vaccines, virtual care utilization remains 38 times higher than before the pandemic, but how has usage changed?³ An area of care we are seeing embraced by virtual delivery is behavioral health. Health plan members can connect with a psychiatrist, therapist or chat-based coach, from the privacy of their bedroom, their kitchen, or even their car.
What’s more—Included Health’s Primary Care Physicians (PCP) have been trained to recognize, score, and treat anxiety and depression. We believe this is critical with the stress that the pandemic has placed on individuals, and has been a great way to help with and maintain mental health.
Health plans put a lot of time and effort into delivering the right care at the right time for their members – care that is cost effective for optimal outcomes. Telehealth looks to surmount these challenges for health plans and their members. There’s a trend towards digital front doors, and innovative plans have launched new virtual-first health plans. This is a big step in embracing telehealth as a first choice, instead of a last resort.
The increase in accessibility and efficiency of telehealth will lead to further adoption by health plans. Additionally, the introduction of legislation to provide better resources, such as high speed internet access, to those who need it will increase adoption. We believe the future of telehealth is here; whether members need to connect with their PCPs, are dealing with a chronic condition, or are looking for mental health care, telehealth can be the solution.
If you want a more indepth look at the lessons we learned about how virtual care was used during the pandemic and where it is headed for the future, check out this podcast by Touchpoints.
Dr. Prentiss Taylor
Prentiss Taylor M.D. is the Vice President of Medical Affairs at Included Health. He is board-certified in Preventive Medicine as well as in Internal Medicine. Prentiss is an honors graduate of Harvard University and of Harvard Medical School. He trained at the University of Chicago Hospitals and at Rush University Medical Center for his postgraduate years. After working for Advocate in the 1990s, Prentiss was recruited to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, where he worked for over 6 years. He was promoted to Medical Director for Care Management, responsible for 1.2 million people in the Blue Cross PPO programs.