6 Critical Questions to Consider When Evaluating Virtual Care Delivery Options

By Lyle Berkowitz, MD, CEO, KeyCare
Twitter: @KeyCareInc

As patient adoption of telehealth continues to surge and pandemic-era restrictions begin to ease, health systems have an opportunity to re-evaluate their approaches to delivering virtual care.

Telehealth usage for outpatient visits rose from 1% pre-pandemic to 10% in June 2022, according to a recent report from Chartis Group and Kythera Labs. The report revealed that behavioral health is the leading specialty in telehealth adoption, accounting for 57% of all outpatient visits in June 2022, followed by primary care (10.1% of all outpatient visits), and medical specialties (5.8%.)

Another recent patient survey, sponsored by KeyCare, detailed growing patient preferences for telehealth. The survey found that virtual care was the top choice among consumers needing routine urgent medical care, with 41% choosing telehealth, compared to 19% for first-available, 6% for whatever time worked best in their schedules and just 34% preferring office-based care. There were similar findings for routine management of chronic conditions, where 46% of survey participants said telehealth was the preferred option, and almost 43% ranked telehealth as their top choice for mental health services or therapy. At the same time, healthcare providers have experienced first-hand that telehealth is an effective and essential tool to ensure patients have easy access to safe and effective care.

Now that health systems understand there is both patient demand and provider comfort, the question is not whether they should offer virtual care but how best to implement and deliver these services. Most importantly, health systems must decide if they should rely solely on their own providers to deliver virtual care, or if they should also partner with third-party providers who are experts in virtual care. The following questions are designed to help you with that decision.

A Framework for Evaluating Virtual Care Delivery Options

Health systems evaluating their virtual care delivery options must consider six critical questions:

  1. Does the solution provide virtual care services 24/7, 365-days a year? Patients expect readily available, quality care when they need it – especially for urgent care. If they cannot access certain types of care when needed, patients may leave the health system. In fact, 32% of hospital system leaders report lack of access to certain services is the largest contributor to patient leakage for their organization.
  2. What is the health system’s own capacity to accommodate or meet patients’ care expectations? Health systems must evaluate whether their existing staff has the bandwidth to handle patients’ virtual care demands and if it is the best use of their resources. Many organizations have care team members who are already struggling with heavy patient loads and extended work hours, and do not have extra capacity for doing virtual care. Additionally, many health systems providers are optimized organizationally and financially for office-based care and have minimal interest in adding virtual care duties that may decrease efficiencies and offer less financial incentive. Health systems thus have a lot to balance: how to optimize their providers’ satisfaction and efficiency, how to ensure as much in-office access as possible for more complex patients that require, and how to meet their patients’ growing demands for virtual care for routine problems.
  3. Do the virtual care providers have easy access to patient health data to make informed care decisions? A health system’s own providers should have full access to patients’ data, but few third-party virtual care providers can easily view records or share virtual visit notes back to the health system. The KeyCare survey found that 79% of consumers want their regular doctors and telehealth providers to share data more closely.
  4. Will the virtual care solution increase the health system’s risk of losing patients to other providers? Health systems should evaluate whether potential virtual care partners may want to develop an ongoing relationship with their patients, which potentially could lead to patient defection and lost revenues.
  5. Is care available to patients across all 50 states? To legally deliver care, providers must be licensed in the states where their patients are currently residing. To serve patients traveling out of state, health systems need virtual care providers who are licensed across all states. Health systems that offer national coverage via their front doors can also take advantage of an additional benefit: securing new virtual care contracts with local employers and payors!
  6. What technical resources are required to efficiently support the delivery of virtual care on an ongoing basis? A health system’s virtual care partner must be able to provide patients with a seamless website and app experience. In addition, health systems must evaluate whether they have the required technology and staff to support their chosen virtual care strategy, including technical support for virtual visits outside of normal business hours.

Few health systems have the extensive internal resources required to implement and support a virtual care program that provides high-quality 24/7 coverage across all 50 states. To augment their internal resources, health systems should consider partnering with virtual care groups that specialize in helping their health system partners automate, virtualize, and delegate less-complex tasks and care that do not need to be performed in the office.

Now that consumers have more widely experienced the benefits and convenience of telehealth, many continue to embrace virtual visits as their preferred method of interacting with providers to receive care, especially for the high-volume routine issues that can overwhelm office-based practices. As health systems seek to expand their virtual care programs to accommodate patient demand, a thoughtful and thorough evaluation of available options is critical for long term success.