While virtual healthcare visits – medical consultations that take place remotely using video and audio connections – were around long before the coronavirus, the pandemic has helped to make these connections healthcare’s new normal. In 2020 alone, experts predict virtual visits will soar to more than one billion, with more than 900 million visits related to COVID-19.
Clearly, virtual technology provides numerous benefits, particularly in times of crisis. During a pandemic like the current COVID-19 crisis, virtual health can help to stabilize the supply of equipment and increase the capacity of a healthcare system by allowing at least some practitioners to work from home while encouraging patients to use virtual urgent care for a consultation before heading into a clinic.
Shifting non-essential medical visits and non-critical consultations online can also help to reduce workforce exposure to a virus or contagion and, by default, lessen the need for personal protective equipment.
While reducing the spread of viruses and other contagious diseases is always a critical component of good quality healthcare, the convenience of virtual healthcare and the improved patient access to care that it offers often rank high among the benefits that have prompted an increase in telehealth programs long before COVID-19 became a reality. According to a 2018 survey conducted by Deloitte, nearly 25 percent of consumers had already had virtual appointments with their physicians, while 57% of those who had not were interested in giving it a try.
Virtual technology also enables better connectivity between physicians, leading to improved coordination across care teams and better health outcomes. When coupled with the greater schedule flexibility and improved workflow remote appointments provide, it is clear that virtual tools translate into greater cost effectiveness and a positive ROI on the cost of implementing telehealth programs.
Despite its benefits, virtual healthcare is still not commonplace. According to the Deloitte survey, 35 percent of physicians report that their workplace does not have the right technology to support telehealth.
While the coronavirus could very well prompt more facilities to begin using virtual technology, the focus for healthcare providers should be on the versatility virtual care provides. Repeated studies have shown that 50-80 percent of what physicians do – depending on their practice area – doesn’t need to happen in person. Providers should focus on this versatility and create spaces for virtual care that is user-centric, consistent and convertible in order to maximize its effectiveness.
It is equally important for healthcare providers to recognize that virtual health works around a patient’s life, as opposed to their sickness, to deliver care when, where, and how they need and want it. Virtual health works its way into consumers’ daily routines by being embedded in the electronic devices they associate with their daily lives. This strategic, user-centric approach empowers patients and builds trust with their providers, making virtual technology even more powerful.
Whether they are in a doctor’s office or connecting virtually, patients need to feel comfortable, safe, and secure. As a result, technology used to facilitate virtual care must be secure and offer HIPAA and HITECH compliance, as well as end-to-end encryption. And whether they’re connecting from their workplace or home, doctors need to have visually and acoustically private spaces that are connected to both the technical tools and to patient information and data. The experience must be seamless for both the patient and the practitioner.
With webside manner replacing bedside manner, it is essential for providers to leverage video connections to make virtual consultations feel more personal, as if they are happening face-to-face. Video cameras can be strategically placed to allow doctors to maintain a reassuring level of eye contact with their patients. Other factors such as the quality of light and sound and what’s visible in the background play a major role in maintaining a level of professionalism that is consistent with the experience patients would receive if they were meeting with their doctor in person.
As virtual care becomes an increasingly significant part of mainstream healthcare, physical spaces must be optimized for these remote connections so they still feel personal. But these spaces must also be adaptable for other uses, including in-person consultations, documentation in between appointments, and physicians’ quiet focus work.
Spaces must also be flexible as medical standards and patient needs evolve over time, or even as future moments of crisis warrant more extreme shifts. Modular office walls, mobile furnishings, and pods should be able to be reconfigured on demand, maximizing their long-term usefulness and value.
The overall goal is to provide high-quality, effective healthcare that helps people live their best life. Convenience, speed, and efficiency are important components of that, and properly integrated spaces and technologies make all of those components even easier to deliver. But above all, technology simply strengthens the foundation for healthcare practitioners to build upon, so they can stay focused on the human experience and on healing.
Steven Lang is President and CEO of dancker (www.dancker.com).