Recent Trends in Telehealth and Virtual Care Program Offerings

By Gerard Frunzi, Director of Virtual Care, Centura Health

The past few years have been a constant roller coaster for those in Telehealth. There have been significant changes in the regulatory environment, the corporate makeup of the industry, provider interest, and consumer preferences. We are finally settling to a new normal, bringing stability and predictability to supply and demand. Many organizations in response are evaluating strategies around digital access and telehealth. Developing project plans to meet consumer demand through improving access and convenience with telehealth.

Telehealth saw a significant increase in adoption due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Patients and healthcare providers turned to virtual visits to maintain access to care while minimizing in-person interactions. This has since been followed by a slow cooling-off phase. Most programs have settled into their new normal for telehealth. We are now in the baseline period for most organizational telehealth strategy work.

Most states relaxed regulations around telemedicine to make it more accessible during the pandemic. The federal government has yet to solidify telehealth coverage to the home for medicare patients. The coverage is extended until December 31, 2024. Not having it be a permanent benefit without expiration is a significant risk for organizations seeking to invest further in telehealth. If you are following the recent DEA comment period on the registration allowance for the Ryan Haight Act, it appears the regulation makers are not congruent with common expectations in the healthcare market. Despite such great progress in our regulatory landscape, much more work is needed.

Telehealth has seen plenty of vendor mergers and acquisition activity, coalescing a few giants.  There are numerous VC-funded startups, all seeking to become unicorns. New entrants to the telehealth provider space by international corporations with household names has caused quite a stir in the industry. We have seen a lot of failed and discontinued services, along with very successful and proven models of care adopted nationally. I have no prediction around the corporate makeup of our industry except to state it will continually evolve and change. New entrants and existing provider groups rethinking strategy and product offerings is the largest opportunity for vendors in telehealth. Expanding the focus beyond telehealth to digital strategy is ideal. Addressing digital front door, patient engagement tools, and whether to develop apps are large projects that need to have a cohesive strategy.

Organizations should focus their strategy on including digital access, future possibilities with AI, and continued focus on physician and patient buy-in.

With the new normal, organizations and telehealth departments are focusing back on provider satisfaction and patient experience. Before COVID-19, I considered my job as leading a grassroots movement to virtual care. We are back to that mindset. Convincing providers of the utility and benefits of telehealth. Supporting well with intuitive tools that work without error. Designing systems to support clinical workflows matching in-person care.

Those developing strategies in telehealth are well advised to in tandem develop strategies around Artificial Intelligence (AI). When I began working in telehealth eight years ago, the hot feature I would hear during sales calls was how they were market disrupters. Though the term is still around, it is not as valued in purchasing decisions now. AI is now the favorite term in telehealth marketing and is on the agenda of every major conference. Some front runners and innovative workflows are making waves in the industry. Most organizations are either investigating or outright developing AI strategies. There are very loud voices sharing concerns around AI in healthcare. I have heard issues around data security, diversity and equity, and even ethical dilemmas in decision-making processes. A notable concern raised is AI models with repeated input of information produces some variation in their output. Inconsistency is not how healthcare decision-making should happen. Regardless of the concerns, AI has a lot of promise and opportunity. In my opinion, the most significant opportunity lies in leveraging methods to decrease provider time documenting in the electronic medical record (EMR). The great resignation of COVID-19 resulted in shortage of resources to manage the demand. Provider burnout is a crucial problem in our industry and AI can significantly help.

The next phase of Telehealth healthcare will be the Telehealth strategy in the new normal.  Organizations should focus their strategy on including digital access, future possibilities with AI, and continued focus on physician and patient buy-in. The federal government must solidify reimbursement coverage to the home and also the provider type expansion that is currently extended to the end of 2024. It will be critical for some organizations to determine where to make future capital investments.

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