Gaining access to medical professionals was becoming increasingly difficult since the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual healthcare, facilitated by digital technologies, includes a range of services that help alleviate overstretched healthcare systems, minimise the spread of infection, and foster patient-clinician relationships. Moreover, technology platforms extend the utility of digitalisation to help strengthen communication between all healthcare professionals and management teams.
The large numbers of people now visiting hospitals has led to major shifts in healthcare, with technology being leveraged in several innovative ways to improve the penetration, delivery, and safety of healthcare services. Virtual healthcare is but one of these radical alterations to the healthcare landscape.
Digitalising healthcare: The rise of virtual care
The digitalisation of healthcare has been evolving for many years – from telemedicine and remote patient engagement to new digital approaches for diagnostics and information exchange.
What is virtual healthcare?
Like the technologies themselves, the term virtual healthcare – or digital health – is continually evolving to encompass new approaches and digital developments. While there are no officially agreed definitions, the terms virtual-, tele-, digital- and e-healthcare all tend to have a wide scope that includes technologies for remote patient communication, education, diagnosis and monitoring. In addition, digital technologies and software for healthcare professionals internal information exchange and administrative/operational functions are also included under this umbrella. The terms telemedicine and remote healthcare often refer only to the remote medical consultation and treatment of patients.
Why go virtual?
The widespread adoption of virtual healthcare can transform the industry. With remote patient visits, healthcare professionals hope to vastly increase patients’ access to care while simultaneously decreasing the overall cost of healthcare provision. But it is not just the patient experience that is affected, digital technologies impact the entirety of healthcare provision and all those who work in the sector, including managers, procurement teams and operations colleagues. For example, virtual communication between healthcare professionals and digital platforms for performing administrative tasks such as updating patient records and providing patients with the ability to book appointments all help to drive down the cost of modern healthcare and boost patient satisfaction.
While the benefits of virtual healthcare are neither surprising or new, it is the unique circumstances that have resulted in rapid and widespread implementation. With more patients unable or unwilling to visit their primary care physicians, and a need for social distancing requirements and strict infection prevention protocols, hospitals and healthcare centres have relied more heavily on virtual healthcare approaches and technologies, confirming their vital role in modern healthcare.
Connecting with patients
- Remote healthcare visits
The technologies used for live video calling, audio, and instant messaging are not unlike those we use in our daily lives. However, a shift in mindset, as well as healthcare managers decisions to push these services, has opened patients eyes to the benefits and possibilities that remote healthcare provides. The inherent cost savings and increased efficiency benefit healthcare professionals as well.
Mobile video conferencing software and apps enable patients to communicate with their own doctors and clinical teams more quickly, easily, and frequently, eliminating the need for them to travel to a healthcare practise or hospital. Furthermore, there are large number of services available, mostly through mobile telemedicine apps, that can connect people with relevant, licenced healthcare professionals. Because many of these services are available 24/7 and have very short wait times, this option can be very appealing to patients.
Of course, some people still object to this method of patient engagement because they would rather speak with a healthcare professional in person. Furthermore, not all types of consultations can be carried out remotely, and there are numerous occasions when a physical meeting between clinician and patient is required. Issues with Internet access and connectivity, as well as an individual’s knowledge, experience, or skill set, can all have an impact on a patient’s willingness to participate in telemedicine.
- Education and information
As remote healthcare professional/patient engagement increases, there is an even greater need to ensure patients feel informed and up to date. Websites and mobile apps, for example, educate and inform in a more passive and thus cost-effective manner. This digital solution aims to increase NHS diagnostic capacity in the UK, with personalised patient support and educational materials in a digital format, the hope is that this digital service can help improve health outcomes, reduce missed appointments and ease the strain on overstretched hospitals.
By digitising the patient journey from referral to post-procedure feedback, administrative and patient contact time is reduced while the patient remains informed and educated about their procedure.
- Monitoring and diagnosis
Healthcare professionals can monitor patients without having to interact with them through connected-health devices and remote patient monitoring (RPM) technologies. This is an important consideration not only for infection prevention but also for patient experience. Monitoring patients (often with chronic conditions) can be extremely time consuming – both for the patient and for healthcare professionals – so the ability to automatically report on a patient’s health as they go about their daily lives is extremely beneficial to both parties.
Remote patient monitoring empowers patients to take charge of their health and reduces traffic to healthcare facilities, allowing resources to be directed where they are most needed. Adopting an RPM system to supplement care frequently helps to improve user satisfaction and can have potential outcomes benefits. However, it should be noted that it does not necessarily reduce demand on the healthcare system because clinician time, data analysis, and diagnosis remain important factors.
Whether we are talking about healthcare professional/patient engagement, hospitals internal communication, or operational tools, the main advantage of virtual healthcare is its ability to reduce overall healthcare costs while maintaining patient outcomes and experiences.
Taking into account the combination of current pressures on healthcare systems, including ageing populations, decreased funding and staffing levels, as well as ever-tightening targets for wait times, this clear advantage of going digital makes it worth pursuing.