Digital healthcare is booming, but 4 hurdles remain

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For years, advocates of digital health have touted the potential of video visits, phone calls, emails, text messages, and smartphone apps to provide more convenient and accessible care than in-person visits to brick-and-mortar hospitals and clinics. That changed virtually overnight as COVID-19 spread across the United States. With stay-at-home orders in place, and with hospitals limiting in-person care to emergency situations, virtual visits skyrocketed to 13% of all insurance claims in April 2020. That figure has dropped since, but virtual visits continue to make up more than 5% of health care visits, FAIR Health’s data shows.

As recently as February 2020, however, virtual visits still represented fewer than 1 in 250 health care visits, according to FAIR Health, a research organization that looks at commercial health insurance claims. (Virtual visits are a specific type of digital health encounter in which a physician sees a patient electronically.) “Virtual care and telemedicine were considered ‘nice to have’ a few years ago. Today they’re an expectation — a must-have. The virtual care experience is here to stay,” said Madan, who was joined on the panel by Jonathan Teich, MD, chief medical information officer at health care data management company InterSystems, and Christian Hicks, vice president of strategy and operations at Maven Clinic, which provides virtual care for those who are pregnant.

2020 was a transformative year for our industry. Consumer behavior has fundamentally changed in light of the pandemic. Across the United States, hospitals and health systems expanded their own use of digital health, both to safely treat patients in the hospital with COVID-19 and to let patients with low-acuity needs receive care from home.

“2020 was a transformative year for our industry. Consumer behavior has fundamentally changed in light of the pandemic,” Anmol Madan, PhD ‘10, chief data scientist for telehealth company Teladoc Health, said during a panel discussion during last month’s MIT Sloan Healthcare and BioInnovations Conference. For example, use of the Teladoc virtual visit platform for mental health visits grew 500% in the 12-month period ending in February 2021. Post-pandemic challenges

Anmol Madan
chief data scientist, Teladoc Health Continued success means being able to support a unified care experience. “After the novelty of telemedicine wears off, and it’s not the first time consumers are using it, I don’t think they’re saying, ‘I want virtual care,’ or, ‘I want physical care.’” Madan said. “I think they’re just saying, ‘I want health care.’”

1. Data operability Post-pandemic, digital health won’t function so much as a replacement for in-person care as a way to enhance or extend it, the panelists agreed. Follow-ups after hospital discharge, assessments of blood glucose readings, conversations with a doula, and many other types of appointments don’t necessarily require driving to a hospital or clinic, parking, and waiting to see a doctor. Supporting a unified care experience will pose four key challenges to telehealth providers as well as health systems moving forward:

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