Technology key to CVS' disruption of the healthcare industry

For many patients, access and affordability often are the most important determinants as to where, when and how they will receive care.

To that end, CVS Health's status as a disruptor in the healthcare industry continues to grow.

This morning, the pharmacy retailer announced a collaboration with three telehealth vendors--American Well, Doctor on Demand and Teladoc--to determine the best ways to expand direct-to-consumer telehealth efforts. The partnership comes shortly after a study of MinuteClinic consumers showed that nearly all 1,734 who completed a survey to be "very satisfied" with telehealth provided, with one-third of respondents saying they preferred telehealth visits to in-person visits.

What's more, last month CVS announced that prescription and visit information from its clinics can be integrated into the electronic medical records of patients at St. Luke's University Health Network in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. A similar setup was announced a month earlier between CVS Health and Sutter Health in California, Millennium Physician Group in Florida, Bryan Health Connect in Nebraska and Mount Kisco Medical Group in New York, and last fall, the pharmacy retailer integrated electronically with MedStar Health's 10 hospitals and 4,000 doctors in the District of Columbia and Maryland.

In addition, in June, it was announced that CVS Health will acquire Target Corp.'s clinics and pharmacies for $1.9 billion, allowing the former to expand to more locations nationwide.

Separately, each of those announcements stands on its own as important. Together, they represent a potential shift in how care could be delivered.

Yes, CVS is expanding its reach as a provider. More importantly, though, it's not trying to replace traditional providers, but instead, aims to work with them to deliver care.

"I think this type of care delivery has already applied pressure to many of us to get going in this area," Linda Reed, vice president and CIO at Morristown, New Jersey-based Atlantic Health System, told FierceHealthIT. "This is going to become a standard way to deliver some types of care. As traditional providers we are going to have to meet patients and consumers where, when and how they want to receive care."

University of Mississippi Medical Center CIO David Chou and Todd Richardson, senior vice president and CIO at Wausau, Wisconsin-based Aspirus Inc. both agreed, calling such a model the future of care.

"We're moving toward a retail mentality and the traditional healthcare providers have to start adapting to consumer expectations," Chou said.

Added Richardson, "We all need to figure out how we work in the new world rather than think [disruption] will go away."

Talking specifically about how the telehealth effort will impact the health industry, American Well CEO Roy Schoenberg told FierceHealthIT that CVS' decision to work with three vendors instead of one enables it to be more flexible in its offerings.

"CVS has taken the more expansive approach of saying that telehealth is going to happen in so many different ways," Schoenberg said. "They're going to allow all of the different models to proliferate. Each of us has a different view of how to use telehealth."

The effort could be especially important for chronically ill and elderly patients who have difficulties leaving their homes, said Schoenberg. He added that enabling them to frequently touch base and adjust their medications and care processes "move the needle the most" as far as disruption. 

While agreeing with the assertion that healthcare is moving in a more retail-oriented direction, though, Roger Neal, vice president and CIO at Duncan Regional Hospital in Oklahoma, raised questions about the possible negative impact of patients relying too heavily on such clinics and, in particular, their use of telehealth.

"Who is watching the cookie jar on all the telehealth providers now?" Neal asked. "As the world's largest pill popping society, [and getting worse each year], will this venture by CVS lead to more prescriptions that can be conveniently filled at your local CVS? Will that lead to better quality care for our patients or hurt us in the long run? … Or will these providers deny patients a prescription and refer them to their primary care doctor for further follow up in those cases that are within the gray area and hard to diagnose via the iPad camera and VoIP?

"Don't get me wrong, I think telehealth has a major role to play in the way we deliver and receive care," Neal continued. "I'm just a little more skeptical."

Similarly, Indranil Ganguly, vice president and CIO for Edison, New Jersey-based JFK Health System, called consumerization of healthcare overdue, but wondered about the quality balance. "It will be interesting to see how the desire for a relationship with a caregiver will work alongside the desire for maximum convenience and reasonable cost," he said.

CVS' efforts already are making waves for healthcare providers and vendors, alike. How drastically they change patients' habits without jeopardizing care quality, however, will be the key to their sustainability. - Dan (@Dan_Bowman and @FierceHealthIT)