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January 2, 2017 Guest articles No Comments

Five Predictions for Virtual Care in 2017
By Ralph Derrickson

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The New Year is upon us, as is a soon-to-be new administration, a move from fee-for-service to fee-for-value, and increased patient interest in healthcare convenience – all of which could make 2017 a very interesting year for the healthcare industry. What exactly can we expect? There are few certainties, but we have enough information, looking at existing trends, to make some predictions for the coming year.

Consumers Assume Greater Costs and Greater Responsibility

There is little doubt that health plans will become more expensive for patients, as they are asked to take on higher deductibles, accelerating the consumerization of healthcare. Assuming ever greater responsibility for their own healthcare, consumers will seek additional care options and compare related costs. More consumers are becoming increasingly active in their education and healthcare decision-making. It’s essential that physicians prepare for this changing landscape by providing support for cost-conscious patients including strategic pricing options, convenience, and ease of access.

A recent American Telemedicine Association survey of active healthcare consumers revealed that convenience remains the top motivator behind their demand for telehealth services. I predict that greater telemedicine access in 2017 will shift patient thinking to recognizing telemedicine as a cost-conscious option – not just one of convenience.

Value-based Care Will Shape Virtual Care

This year will be the first in a giant shift to value-based payment models through MACRA, which will in turn highlight the need for cost-effective measures focused on quality metrics. At the same time, MACRA will drive physicians to look for solutions to expand practice access. MACRA encourages physicians to focus on the whole patient, providing new guidance on health records tracking and improving population health management. MACRA will also mean pushing the envelope on innovation and new care delivery models. In this new value-based care landscape, integrated telemedicine will offer a new care delivery model that addresses access issues. Configurable EHR integration and population health management will make telemedicine a natural and agile response to MACRA requirements.

Retail Clinics Create Stiffer Competition and Greater Fragmentation

Physicians will face greater competition as more retail and non-health system organizations look to attract patients through direct-to-consumer advertising. A consumer walking into a familiar pharmacy will bring routine retail habits to their interaction with affiliated clinics. This will make them likely to use a convenient option operating in affiliation with a comfortable retail brand, without thought of how that option impacts their larger relationship with their physician.

The retail clinic market will continue to make services even more convenient for consumers, leading to greater competition in local markets; but it will also lead to greater care fragmentation. To compete, physicians will need to adopt and promote integrated telemedicine services that provide 24-7, on-demand access. Digital marketing, value differentiation, and healthcare brand affinity will be increasingly important as physicians compete to keep current patients and attract new patients looking for greater ease of access.

New Legislation Drives Increased Telehealth Reimbursement

The number of states with telemedicine-reimbursing parity laws has almost doubled in the last three years, reflecting legislative understanding of the coverage barrier to telemedicine. With many state medical boards across the country enacting or considering increased requirements for virtual care, legislation on virtual care reimbursement will become more commonplace. As new rules and legislation are considered, telemedicine providers must work with state medical boards to ensure that patients receive the highest quality of care.

Greater Employer-based Health Plan Coverage for Telemedicine

In 2017, the National Business Group on Health estimates that 90 percent of employers will make telemedicine services available to employees in states that allow it. This is a significant increase over the 70 percent of employers who currently offer virtual care to their employees. This is further evidence that employers are ready to throw their weight behind patient preference for convenient healthcare options. Employers realize virtual care is central to meeting this demand while improving outcomes, managing costs, and minimizing the wait time burden of in-person visits.

I expect that increased health plan coverage for telemedicine in 2017 will increase national rates of telemedicine utilization as more patients gain access. I also foresee greater demand for virtual-care training for providers who are entering the digital clinic space.

At the end of 2017, we can be certain that innovation in healthcare will be driven by the needs of patients, that care quality will always be paramount to technology – virtual or otherwise, and that, like its predecessor, the year will be one of continued changes in healthcare.

Ralph C. Derrickson is president and CEO of Carena in Seattle.


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