COVID-19 has forced many health systems to adopt telehealth tools and aggressively transition a substantial portion of primary care interactions away from brick-and-mortar facilities. The time compressed nature of this evolution has pushed an industry used to measured and careful decision-making into unfamiliar waters.
Even for systems at the forefront of telehealth experimentation, implementation and utilization was extremely uneven before the current public health crisis. This includes major weaknesses in the primary care infrastructure: community hospitals, rural hospitals, and outpatient extension offices had key gaps in digital care capabilities, with only 38% of facilities using any telehealth programming . Early adopters and case leaders are more common among acute care and integrated delivery systems. While these institutions are better positioned to take advantage of these investments, they are still facing difficult decisions about the role digital health should play in their post-COVID care and system planning.
Despite the disruption experienced by many providers , COVID has accelerated long-term trends already in place and pushed the next wave of digital health transformation forward. Home-based remote monitoring technologies are proliferating at incredible rates. Regulatory and reimbursement changes now provide clear revenue incentives for remote care. Historical data from early adopters show the systemic impact on cost structure that digital health investment can offer. Patient and member expectations for quality and convenience of care continue to increase. This all points to the strategic importance of digital health capabilities increasing in the years to come.
Before health systems and providers consider scaling these nascent telehealth programs into more robust digital health offerings, leaders must evaluate how these capabilities align to long-term digital health strategy. In short, how do the investments/adjustments made in the face of COVID:
Most providers will, at a minimum, have to revisit implementation of these programs and develop retraining protocols for front-line staff. Some will have to take the more aggressive step of investing in more user-friendly platforms. Almost all systems will have to rethink how they can use digital health to re-engage patients and drive volume back to more profitable specialties and care offerings.
¹“How The Rapid Shift To Telehealth Leaves Many Community Health Centers Behind During The COVID-19 Pandemic” Kim, Desai, & Cole, Health Affairs, June 2020