By Rick Halton, Vice President of Marketing, Lumeon

Article first appeared HIT Consultant.

The COVID-19 pandemic made healthcare visits over video or phone the norm, likely turning telehealth into a permanent fixture within the U.S. healthcare system. In fact, the majority of patient access leaders at large hospitals believe 20-30 percent of appointments will happen over video in 2021, according to recent research. Further, an overwhelming portion of those leaders – 95 percent of them – believe the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services should continue to reimburse for video appointments, indicating the industry’s eagerness to sustain this format of care delivery.

It’s becoming clear that even after the pandemic stabilizes, telehealth utilization is likely to remain high. In the same way that “mobile banking” became normalized (we now see it simply as “banking”), telehealth will likely follow a similar trajectory. “Video appointments” will become synonymous with what we understand today as any regular “doctor appointment.”

But even with telehealth as the new norm, it’s not a silver bullet – it’s only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to modernizing care delivery. A seamless patient experience that delivers positive outcomes depends on so much more than just a sleek video interface. It’s also impacted by the patient’s broader virtual care – that is, all the other activities that lead up to and follow that single telehealth appointment.

Why does virtual care matter?

Not to be confused with telehealth, “virtual care” is a broader concept that may include a single telehealth appointment, but also includes everything else surrounding it – from preparing patients ahead of their appointment, to coordinating follow-up actions – ensuring the continuity of the patient’s care.

Take, for example, the ancillary services that are necessary components of the patient’s care plan. Diagnostic imaging, lab tests, or physical therapy, for instance, are common next steps following a patient visit. When a patient sees their doctor in person, coordinating these ancillary services is easy – they may be simply directed to the lab on the next floor down, or referred to a physical therapist on the hospital campus.

But what happens when a patient visits their doctor via video? Not only is there now additional coordination that the patient must navigate on their own, but there are negative effects for the provider as well. Health systems tend to prefer in-person visits to telehealth visits because even if they reimbursed the same for the visit, they potentially lose revenue for ancillary services.

Virtual care aims to solve this challenge, by coordinating the full care experience beyond the initial visit. Through a mix of virtual communication, assessment, triage, screening, instruction, check-in, and monitoring, virtual care models guide patients autonomously along their care journey – wherever they are – while simultaneously coordinating nurses and administrators around patient care plans.

So, what might this look like in practice?

Imagine this: during a video appointment with your doctor, you are instructed to schedule a blood test. Right after your appointment, you receive an automated SMS message summarizing the next steps and offering a link to schedule your blood test. You do so in just a few clicks. The day before your blood test, you receive an SMS reminder that includes the lab address and an overview of procedures for entering the facility, such as wearing a mask and stopping at the front desk for a temperature check. A few days later, another automated SMS delivers your blood test results, along with a link to schedule a follow-up appointment with your doctor to review (over video, the phone, or in-person as appropriate).

This is just one example of how automated virtual care can help put care plans into effect and ensure they are followed through while reducing patient confusion or anxiety. Crucial parts of patient care are too often forgotten or ignored by patients, especially when they are outside of the clinic. Virtual care moves these care activities forward and automatically flags nurses and administrators to intervene when needed. There are numerous other scenarios that stand to benefit from virtual care – from e-form assessments or screening surveys to better prepare the patient ahead of an appointment, to sharing medication refill instructions or self-scheduling of follow-up physical therapy referrals following surgery.

In terms of their revenue-generating potential, telehealth and virtual care simply can’t be compared. While telehealth allows providers to get reimbursed for a transactional remote visit, virtual care drives business value on another scale by allowing providers to bill for a host of other related services and ensure the patient keeps coming back. Coordinating a full virtual care journey offers a major boost to profit margins because it orchestrates revenue-generating services for almost every patient while lessening the burdens on the care team.

COVID-19 catalyzed a change in how the industry thinks about care delivery. Though it started with a rapid scale-up of telehealth, providers are beginning to understand that patients need a shepherd throughout their digital care journey. The opportunity is to leverage technology to deliver lean, contextual, and personalized virtual care experiences that always deliver the right care, to the right patient, at the right time.