Virtual healthcare visits – medical consultations that take place remotely using video and audio connections – are becoming the industry’s new normal. They’re predicted to soar to more than one billion in 2020, according to Forrester, including 900 million virtual visits related to COVID-19.
“Forrester also expects time and resource constraints to create a supply crisis for virtual care during the pandemic, especially as only 24 percent of US healthcare organizations had an existing virtual care program as of January 2020.” This data underscores the imperative that providers must quickly adapt to meet today’s needs, and to be prepared for the months and years that follow. Virtual technology provides many tools and offers many benefits in moments of crisis and over the long term but for healthcare in particular – an industry that is devoted to the compassionate care of people – it must be carefully integrated into providers’ practices in order to maintain personal connections, consistency and trust. Healthcare providers have a tremendous opportunity to embrace the new normals that are emerging today, and to leverage them to make their medical practices even more responsive, even more human.
STABILIZING SUPPLIES DURING TIMES OF CRISIS
During the current COVID-19 crisis when every doctor and every face mask makes a difference, virtual health can help stabilize the supply of both equipment and workforce and increase the capacity of the healthcare system, according to Deloitte. For example, when one region is suffering from a widespread outbreak and is operating at (or above) surge capacity in its local facilities, it can rely on virtual connections with practitioners in other regions that are not current COVID-19 hot spots to help meet demands.
Shifting non-essential medical visits and non-critical consultations online also helps to reduce workforce exposure to the virus (or any contagions) and by default reduces the need for personal protective equipment (PPE). But when practitioners are exposed and must self-quarantine, or are operating under strict stay-at-home orders, technology allows them to continue working from home. As Vox reports, “many hospitals are encouraging patients to use virtual urgent care for a consultation before heading into a clinic. This is especially important for patients who thinks they have COVID-19 but aren’t sick enough to require hospitalization.”
…virtual health can help stabilize the supply of both equipment and workforce and increase the capacity of the healthcare system.
IMPROVING ACCESS TO CARE
Reducing the spread of viruses and other contagious diseases is a critical component of good quality healthcare at any moment, not just times of crisis, and it’s just one of the benefits that have prompted an increase in telehealth programs long before COVID-19 became a reality. In fact, according to a Deloitte survey, in 2018 nearly 25 percent of consumers had already had virtual appointments with their physicians, and 57% of those who had not were interested in giving it a try. The convenience of virtual healthcare, and the improved patient access to care that it offers are cited in the same survey as the most important benefits; 64 percent of consumers and 66 percent of physicians agree.
Virtual tools enable better connectivity between physicians, too, and lead to improved coordination across care teams and better health outcomes. Patients with chronic diseases or medical conditions that require monitoring over time also see benefits when those check-ins can happen quickly and easily using a phone or computer. For practitioners, virtual healthcare programs offer greater schedule flexibility and improved workflow as well. When appointments take place remotely, one can more easily flow to the next with less interruption. All of this improved efficiency adds up to greater cost effectiveness, and a positive ROI on the cost of implementing telehealth programs.
CONVERTING MEDICAL PRACTICES TO MEET DEMANDS
Despite the long list of benefits, 35 percent of physicians surveyed by Deloitte report that their workplace does not have the right technology to support telehealth. Will today’s pandemic convince others to join the movement? Michael Barnett, a professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health tells Vox that “50 to 80 percent of what physicians do – depending on what they practice – doesn’t need to happen in person,” making telehealth more versatile than some might think. “Telemedicine is particularly suited to certain types of medical care, including general consultations with doctors, mental healthcare, follow-up appointments, and even some specialties, like dermatology.”
Steelcase advises that healthcare providers should focus on this versatility and create space for virtual care that is user-centric, consistent and convertible in order to maximize its effectiveness. Think strategy first, technology second, as Deloitte puts it in their report on humanizing health care. Virtual health “works within and around a patient’s life, as opposed to their sickness, to deliver care when, where, and how they need and want it. Also, virtual health works its way into consumers’ daily routines by being embedded in electronic devices associated with living life more than caring for sickness (e.g. smartphones and personal computers).” This strategic user-centric approach empowers patients and builds trust with their medical providers, and ultimately makes the technology even more powerful.
Virtual health “works within and around a patient’s life, as opposed to their sickness, to deliver care when, where, and how they need and want it.
LEVERAGING TECHNOLOGY TO BUILD TRUST
Trust is a huge component of quality healthcare. Whether they’re in a doctor’s office or connecting virtually, patients need to feel comfortable, safe and secure. At a basic level, the 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.
Bedside manner is an even more critical component of building trust and providing compassionate care, so in virtual healthcare that notion shifts to “webside manner.” Mary Lynn Kearns, an account executive at dancker, suggests that “even when connecting virtually with their patients, physicians and other healthcare workers must stay focused on the human side of the important work they’re doing, and not let technology become a distraction or impediment to the patient’s overall health and well-being. It’s a tool that empowers better care, but it doesn’t replace the human connection.”
Video connections help virtual consultations feel more personal as if they’re happening face-to-face, versus phone or audio connections alone. Video cameras can be strategically placed, too, 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 big role in maintaining a level of professionalism that’s consistent with the experience patients would receive if they’d met with their doctor in person.
DESIGNING FOR FUTURE FLEXIBILITY
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, whether that’s in-person consultations, documentation in between appointments, or 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 and mobile furnishings and pods, such as Steelcase’s SnapCab pods, are easily 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 medical practitioners to build upon, so they can stay focused on the human experience and on healing.
Whether furniture or technology is needed to support the virtual healthcare experience, we’re here to help. Contact us to discuss your specific needs today.
Looking to learn more about Virtual Healthcare? Download Steelcase’s webinar, Understanding Virtual Care, to learn more about how the healthcare industry is adapting to meet the demands of the global pandemic.