If there is one “silver lining” in this pandemic, it’s the widespread willingness to use different technologies to connect with patients and physicians alike. With that, a new frontier has emerged: patients have multiple options at their disposal to receive medical advice via chatbot or video chat.
The advent of telehealth—while completely accelerated—is a welcomed change that can help us deliver high-quality, more convenient, and more meaningful care.
Before COVID-19, there was a reluctance to embrace virtual care technology or to make any meaningful change to our care models at all. Seemingly overnight, the public went from hesitance and reluctance about using telehealth to embracing it—forcing many to turn to their laptops, smartphones, and tablets as a means of communicating with their physicians.
In fact, Forrester Research predicts there will be over 1 billion virtual appointments in the U.S. this year alone, a testament to the reliance we’ve placed on telehealth platforms.
In this period of rapid and profound change in clinical practice, there is enormous pressure to reduce health costs, eliminate empty promises and accelerate health care in a manner that’s more efficient, flexible, and patient-focused.
As a physician who uses telemedicine, I can attest to the impact coronavirus has had on my work. However, if it is to prevail, there’s a lot more to the future of care than phone calls and video conferences. Emphasizing primary care, connecting with patients, and embracing new technologies are all key components to ensuring the success of care delivery in a post-pandemic world.
Reinforcing the importance of primary care
A mere 65% of millennials have a primary care physician compared to 85% of baby boomers, revealing a decreasing dependence on primary care.
Instead, many patients prefer to avoid yearly check-ups and utilize urgent care centers or similar one-off virtual programs for any specific issues. However, this model is fundamentally flawed and ultimately detrimental to one’s overall health.
The coronavirus in particular has exposed these flaws, as patients have nowhere to turn to address their ongoing health concerns. As a result, people are beginning to see the benefits of primary care.
Patients without a primary care physician are missing out on the very specific health benefits that come from having a provider know you and your health status.
If a provider knows a patient, they will have the background knowledge to make more accurate diagnoses and identify health issues before they become severe.
Additionally, when patients develop trust through a longitudinal relationship with their physician or NP, they feel comfortable bringing up important sensitive health issues. Now that virtual care has made actually meeting with a primary care provider that much easier, it’s important to reiterate the need for continuous primary care.
Connecting with what’s truly valuable
Of all the different ways in which physicians have traditionally participated in patient care, the ones that add the greatest value and are the hardest to replace are compassionate interactions with patients—especially at critical moments in their lives.
Many are trying to replace these interactions with technology, but I think we can do more than just replace them. Communication tools like in-app messaging open up the opportunity for patients to build stronger relationships with their primary care team.
On average, patients connect with their physician 1 or 2 times per year at their annual visit, but telehealth empowers consumers to conveniently and frequently touch base with an entire care team throughout the year.
Personally, I love to get messages that begin with, “I forgot to ask you something.” It shows that patients feel comfortable connecting with me using technology. With virtual care, consumers can build stronger, more impactful relationships.
Compelling physicians and care teams to embrace innovation
Our profession has always embraced technological innovation that demonstrably improved our ability to prevent, diagnose, manage, and treat disease. I believe professionalism compels us to also embrace technological advances that improve the safety, reliability, and efficiency of care delivery, even if this involves profound changes in our role in delivering care.
New technologies may seem disruptive as if they could ruin the model of care physicians and care teams have built. However, this disruption is a good thing; if we embrace innovation, we can successfully implement and utilize it to make a difference in our treatment.
COVID-19 has forced primary care providers to completely change their care model—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The increased focus on primary care, emphasis on patient/provider connection, and the willingness to use telehealth technologies mean we have an opportunity to fix a model that’s been broken for a while.
Let’s use this opportunity to create a new continuous model of care.
Nisha Basu, M.D., is a healthcare leader, primary care physician, and medical director of the tech-enabled primary care startup Firefly Health.