What healthcare providers can learn from the retail industry’s confrontation with Amazon

As telemedicine grows its presence in the healthcare market, providers need to rethink how they will stay relevant in an industry that is becoming increasingly virtual.

That’s according to Bruce Judson, the best-selling author and president of the advisory firm TelehealthWorks, who argues that healthcare will soon be forced to confront a new digital landscape the same way the retail industry was upended by Amazon.

“The single most important lesson of the past two decades is that a physical presence is, ultimately, a weak barrier to virtual competition,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Huffington Post.  

Judson argues that telemedicine is going to fill a consumer need—mainly, convenient, low-cost care. And as telemedicine takes on a larger chunk of the healthcare market, it will inevitably compete with traditional hospitals and physician offices. Telemedicine won’t completely overtake those physical locations, he writes, but it will create an “entirely new balance between physical and virtual services.”

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Data show that transition is already well underway. A survey released this week by the National Business Group on Health indicates 96% of large employers plan to make telehealth services available next year, with a greater focus on virtual behavioral health services.

That’s likely driven by the fact that nearly 20% of employers are seeing telehealth utilization rates of 8% or more among their employees. Another recent survey shows more than half of patients prefer telehealth over a traditional office visit.

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Although Judson argues that healthcare executives and physicians are largely ignoring this transformation, statistics indicate there is more focus on telehealth than ever before. More than eight in 10 healthcare executives have said they plan to invest in telehealth systems this year to gain a competitive advantage or expand their market reach.

Furthermore, many large systems are backing that up with telehealth ventures focused on improving access to emergency care, targeting complex patient populations with several chronic diseases and offering new services to capture a broader range of patients. Even the Department of Veterans Affairs—which oversees the nation’s largest healthcare system—just announced plans to vastly expand its telehealth offerings through its new “Anywhere to Anywhere” program.

There are countless examples of how the industry is already preparing for the integration of more digital tools. Those that can balance the physical and virtual models of healthcare going forward will be well-prepared for any changes to the industry.