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Innovation experts: No dialing back the future of virtual care

By Carley Thornell | September 22, 2020

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It’s no secret that COVID-19 was the catalyst that many healthcare providers needed to adopt or better utilize telehealth capabilities — and that innovators needed to enhance their solutions. Navimize, for instance, was able to quickly add telehealth waiting-room capabilities to its platform that already serviced in-person visits. Patient engagement platform Epion Health added telehealth capabilities in record time. Epion CEO and founder Joe Blewitt calls the pandemic the “9/11” of medicine, for better or worse.

One of the things we learned from 9/11 was that we had to integrate. It was just communication amongst all the different branches of the service, and everybody had to come together,” he said, comparing the situation to the teamwork shown over the past seven months across the healthcare continuum. “We had to do that in order to win the fight.”

As one of the original athenahealth Marketplace partners, Blewitt knows a thing or two about solutions that connect payers, providers and patients. But perhaps some of today’s most promising progress comes not only on the technical front, but also culturally, say industry leaders like him who shared their insights on the future of virtual care as part of athenahealth’s Healthcare’s Next Act conference.

“What’s underneath that speed of flipping to telehealth is the quality of that partnership that went on between technology companies and providers, between providers and patients,” concurred Dr. Hilary Hatch, Vice President of Clinical Engagement at Phreesia, a digital intake and patient-screener platform. “Constant updates of, ‘These are our new safety protocols. Here is what you need to know.’ It was amazing to see that unprecedented, thoughtful communication, which healthcare isn’t known for.”

The increased connectivity enhances the meaning of the term “network,” especially with the unprecedented rapid adoption of telehealth tools through the Marketplace. The customizable, quick-to-install third-party solutions for everything from patient engagement to remote patient monitoring promote a healthcare ecosystem and offer a more seamless start-to-finish experience — if indeed there even is a “finish.” 

All speakers agree: The future of telehealth is less episodic and more longitudinal. Modern medicine needs to think beyond 15-minute virtual appointment time slots to enable an entire curated approach, from forms collected digitally in advance to tools that support remote-patient monitoring and chronic care management. 

“Going forward, it will be all about how we keep the relationship with the patient when they're not together,” said Dr. Monica Bulbjerg, CEO and founder of virtual care platform Qure4u. “And that will force the device industry to mature.” Embracing wearable-device data collection, for instance, along with encouraging the digital activation of patient panels with text messaging and email opt-ins, give physicians a better idea of who needs help when, and supports ongoing communication for a broader perspective on health outside of an annual wellness visit for others less at-risk.

Having better access to data gives doctors the ability to better care for their patients and also more leverage when it comes to negotiating payer contracts, she said. But while everyone agrees that there’s no dialing back the pandemic’s monumental telehealth advances, the biggest question may be whether payers will continue current reimbursement structures that sustain virtual care. Recent moves from the White House to make telehealth flexibilities provided during the COVID-19 permanent represent a seismic shift in how American healthcare is delivered said Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, last month. 

Learn more about what athenahealth’s Marketplace partners have to share on their vision for the future of virtual health.