When COVID volumes waned in the spring and early summer, most health systems “de-escalated” dedicated COVID testing and triage facilities. But with the Delta variant surging across the country, consumers are now once again looking for services like drive-through testing, which is perceived as more convenient and safer.
One physician leader told us patients in the ED are asking why the hospital got rid of the “COVID tent”, which provided a separate pathway for patients with respiratory and other COVID symptoms—and a highly visible signal that the rest of the department was as COVID-free as possible.
Another system is now fielding questions from the media about whether they’ll bring back their dedicated COVID hospital: “We spent a lot of time last year convincing the community that the dedicated hospital was key to safely managing care during the pandemic. Now we’ve got almost as many COVID admissions spread across our hospitals.”
Over the past year, providers have learned how to safely manage COVID care and prevent spread in healthcare settings—but consumers may perceive the lack of dedicated facilities as a decline in safety.
Unlike last year, hospitals are full of non-COVID patients, as those who delayed care reemerge. And with the current surge likely to continue into flu season, emergency rooms will only get more crowded, necessitating a new round of communication describing how hospitals are keeping patients safe, and reassuring patients that healthcare settings remain one of the safest places to visit in the community.
After a calmer start to the summer, the Delta variant is eroding consumer confidence as COVID-19 surges across many parts of the US once again. Using the latest data from Morning Consult’s Consumer Confidence Index, the graphic above shows the fluctuations in consumer confidence levels across the last year.
The most recent COVID surge has caused a five-point drop in confidence in the past month and, with cases still rising, we expect this trend to continue into the fall. Notably, with renewed masking guidance and increasing reports of breakthrough infections, confidence has dropped more among fully vaccinated individuals than among the unvaccinated.
Consumers’ comfort levels aren’t only dropping when it comes to daily activities, like grocery shopping or dining at a restaurant, but also with respect to healthcare. A recent survey from Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock finds that while consumers feel safer visiting healthcare settings in August 2021 than they did back in January, more than a third of consumers report the current COVID situation is making them less likely to seek non-emergency care, and 44 percent say they are more likely to pursue virtual care alternatives.
Health systems must be able to seamlessly “dial up” or “dial down” their virtual care capabilities in order to meet fluctuating consumer demand and avoid another wave of missed or deferred care.
This week Mayo Clinic and Kaiser Permanente announced a $100M joint investment in Boston-based Medically Home, a provider of virtual hospital solutions. Founded in 2016, Medically Home is one of a handful of companies that coordinate with hospitals and doctors to provide in-home clinician visits, round-the-clock communications and monitoring, and access to support services to enable hospital-level care in the home. While interest has surged during the pandemic, the first hospital at home programs launched in the 1990s, and the model has a proven track record of delivering care that is lower cost and clinically equivalent (or better), when compared to a traditional hospital admission.
A confluence of market forces has driven rapid expansion in the model across the past year. Health systems are increasingly looking to hospital at home to address emerging consumer demand for care outside the hospital,and achieve the longer-term goals of providing flexible, lower-cost acute care capacity. And payers are looking to add hospital at home capabilities to their growing virtual and home-based care platforms to manage acutely ill Medicare Advantage beneficiariesin a lower-cost care setting.
Early adopters estimate that as many as 30 percent of patients admitted to hospitals today could be candidates for treatment at home. The large infusion of funding from Kaiser and Mayo will enable Medically Home to scale across the US, and also provides an endorsement of, and commitment to, the care modelfrom these respected systems, which may help convince physicians who remain skeptical.
Coupled with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ waiver program, allowing payment for home-hospital care, this investment should drive a new wave of growth in the model—and will likely make hospital at home a routine part of the care options available to patients.
Given regulatory barriers and structural differences in practice, private equity firms have been slow to acquire and roll up physician practices and other care assets in other countries in the same way they’ve done here in the US. But according a fascinating piece in the Financial Times,investors have targeted a different healthcare segment, one ripe for the “efficiencies” that roll-ups can bring—small veterinary practices in the UK and Ireland.
British investment firm IVC bought up hundreds of small vet practices across the UK, only to be acquired itself by Swedish firm Evidensia, which is now the largest owner of veterinary care sites, with more than 1,500 across Europe. Vets describe the deals as too good to refuse: one who sold his practice to IVC said “he ‘almost fell off his chair’ on hearing how much it was offering. The vet, who requested anonymity, says IVC mistook his shock for hesitation—and increased its offer.” (Physician executives in the US, take note.) IVC claims that its model provides more flexible options, especially for female veterinarians seeking more work-life balance than offered by the typical “cottage” veterinary practice.
But consumers have complained of decreased access to care as some local clinics have been shuttered as a result of roll-ups. Meanwhile prices, particularly for pet medications like painkillers or feline insulin, have risen as much as 40 percent—and vets aren’t given leeway to offer the discounts they previously extended to low-income customers. And with IVC attaining significant market share in some communities (for instance, owning 17 of 32 vet practices in Birmingham), questions have arisen about diminished competition and even price fixing.
The playbook for private equity is consistent across human and animal healthcare: increase leverage, raise prices for care, and slash practice costs, all with little obvious value for consumers. It remains to be seen whether and how consumers will push back—either on behalf of their beloved pets, or for the sake of their own health.
A new study out this week revived an old argument about whether telehealth visits spur more downstream care utilization compared to in-person visits, potentially raising the total cost of care. Researchers evaluated three years of claims data from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan to compare patients treated for an acute upper respiratory infection via telemedicine versus an in-person visit, finding that patients who used telemedicine were almost twice as likely to have a related downstream visit (10.3 percent vs. 5.9 percent, respectively).
They concluded that these increased rates of follow-up likely negate any cost savings from replacing an in-person encounter with a less costly telemedicine visit.
Our take: so what?The study failed to address the question of whether a telemedicine visit was easier to access, or more timely than an in-person visit. Further, it evaluated data from 2016-2019, so the results should be caveated as pertaining to the “pre-COVID era”, before last year’s explosion in virtual care. Moreover, it’s unsurprising that patients who have a telemedicine visit may need more follow-up care (or that providers who deliver care virtually may be more aggressive about suggesting follow-up if symptoms change).
This focus on increased downstream care as a prima facie failure also ignores the fact that telemedicine services likely tap into pent-up, unmet demand for access to care. More access is a good thing for patients—and policymakers should consider that limiting reimbursement for virtual access to primary care (which accounts for less than 6 percent of total health spending) is unlikely to deliver the system-wide reduction in healthcare spending we need.
Uber Health is partnering with e-prescription startup ScriptDrop in a deal expanding the ride-hailing giant’s prescription delivery footprint from a few cities to dozens of U.S. states.
Uber first forayed into medication delivery in several metro areas in August through a deal with digital delivery marketplace NimbleRx, as the pandemic caused a surge in patient demand for the service.
With this latest deal, Uber’s hundreds of thousands of drivers will be accessible to pharmacies using ScriptDrop in 37 states across the U.S. ScriptDrop, a third-party tech platform connecting patients and pharmacies with couriers nationwide, will pay Uber for the cost of each delivery.
But the San Francisco-based company is also hoping the crowded but lucrative at-home prescription drug delivery market will be profitable, following mounting losses last year as the coronavirus pandemic pummeled ride-hailing companies.
Growth in Uber’s delivery business has outpaced plummeting ridesharing revenue during COVID-19. In fourth quarter earnings released February, Uber’s gross bookings in its mobility business were down 50% year over year, while gross bookings in its delivery segment were up 130%.
This latest deal suggests Uber is doubling down on delivery, banking that demand for at-home drug delivery remains high beyond COVID-19.
ScriptDrop integrates with a pharmacy’s software system to provide same-day shipping medication delivery options, and also has a consumer-facing portal for drop-offs. As of today, Uber is integrated with ScriptDrop via an application programming interface, and will become the default option for select pharmacies depending on location and driver availability, the companies said.
ScriptDrop doesn’t share the exact number of U.S. pharmacies working with its platform, but a spokesperson told Healthcare Dive they partner with thousands. ScriptDrop clients include prominent pharmacies like Albertsons, Kmart and Safeway; pharmacy systems such as PDX and a number of courier companies, health systems and insurers.
The partnership is operational in 37 states as of today, including California, Florida, New York and Texas. Uber and ScriptDrop have additional plans for near-term expansion, in some cases in new states in the next couple of weeks, the spokesperson said.
Uber first launched consumer-facing prescription delivery in several U.S. cities through the Uber Eats app, in the partnership with NimbleRx. That’s grown from a pilot in Seattle and Dallas to cities including New York, Miami, Austin and Houston, with more metro areas to come, according to Uber.
Prescription drug delivery companies have reported skyrocketing utilization during COVID-19. Columbus, Ohio-based ScriptDrop has said delivery volume jumped 363% from February to April last year, while revenue tripled between October 2019 and October 2020. The startup announced a $15 million funding round in October to drive growth, bringing its total funding to $27 million since launching in 2017.
Partially as a result of COVID-19 tailwinds, the prescription tech sector, which includes e-prescription vendors like NimbleRx and ScriptDrop, is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 16%, the quickest of the enterprise health and wellness segments, according to a February report from Pitchbook.
Despite consumer demand for at-home prescription delivery, it’s a crowded market. Most major pharmacies, including CVS Health and Walgreens, have hustled to build out their delivery networks in the past few years, facing potential disruption from outside entrants, notably Amazon.
It’s long been accepted as a truism that “moms” make most of a family’s healthcare choices. This has led many health systems to invest in high-end women’s services, especially labor and delivery facilities, with the hope of winning the entire family’s long-term healthcare loyalty.
This conventional wisdom has existed since the middle of the last century, when the postwar Baby Boom coincided with the rise of commercial insurance. But it’s hard to find real evidence that these investments deliver on their intent—and we think the argument deserves to be reexamined.
An expectant mother is likely years away from her family’s major healthcare spending events. Giving her a fantastic virtual care experience, or taking great care of her teenager who blows out a knee playing soccer, is likely to engender greater loyalty to the health system when she’s looking for her first mammogram, than her labor and delivery experience from a decade earlier. That’s not to say that top-notch obstetrics isn’t important—but market-leading labor and delivery facilities are likely more critical for wholesale purchasers, such as an employer considering a narrow network, or for physicians choosing where to build an OB practice.
Direct-to-consumer strategies should be built on more sophisticated consumer research that takes into account the preferences of a new generation of consumers, for whom not all healthcare choices are equal—that same consumer will be in different “segments” and make different choices for different problems over time, not all pre-determined by one memorable birthing experience.