While telemedicine visits have decreased sharply since their early pandemic peak, we’re hearing from providers across the country that patient demand for email communication has persisted.
Many patients have missed meaningful in-person interactions with their doctors. But once they sign up for the portal and realize they can email, they don’t want to go back to spending time on hold or scheduling a visit to get a prescription refill or the answer to a simple question.
Email and messaging saves patients a lot of time, but the sheer amount has quickly become unmanageable for many doctors. “Last year I got half a dozen emails per week from patients,” one primary care physician told us. “Now I’m spending two hours a day answering MyChart messages, and I’m still not keeping up.”
And as many are quick to point out, there is little to no compensation for time spent emailing. Health systems and physician practices can’t “roll back” this service—removing this satisfier would expose them to losing patients altogether.
In the near term, systems must invest in the staff and infrastructure to create a centralized process to triage messages. And longer-term, they must align physician compensation and payment models away from visit-based economics and toward comprehensive patient communication and management.
“Last night I shared a post on Facebook that said, ‘Hey, the flu shot isn’t about you.’ Sitting here, soaking up every ounce of caffeine before my night shift, I figured I should elaborate.
The flu shot is for Influenza, a severe respiratory illness that can lead to death. Have you ever had it? I have, and it’s awful. You spike fevers, every bone and muscle in your body aches, and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t seem to catch your breath.
You get the flu shot not always for you, but for those around you. For the grandparents, whose bodies are not what they used to be, and they just can’t kick an illness in the butt like when they were young.
For the 30 year old, with HIV or AIDS, who has a weakened immune system.
For the 25-year-old mother of 3 who has cancer. She has absolutely zero immune system because of chemotherapy.
For the newborn baby who was just welcomed into the world, and isn’t quite strong enough to fight off infections on his own.
For the nurses and doctors that take care of you. If they get sick, they can’t go to work and take care of the countless patients that need them.
For the 50-year-old husband who needs a medication for his chronic illness, and that medication also weakens his immune system.
For the pregnant mom that has been trying to get pregnant for years, and now she’s trying to stay healthy for her unborn baby.
For the single dad who can’t take any more sick days and needs to provide for his kids.
For the 7-year-old boy that just wants to play with his friends. But he has a disease that puts him at a higher risk for infection, so he has to stay inside.
The flu shot is NOT always about you. It’s about protecting those around you, who cannot always protect themselves. I have been in the room as a patient has passed away, because of influenza. I have watched patients struggle to breathe, because of influenza. I have busted my butt to provide tylenol, warm blankets, nebulizers, etc. to keep that patient comfortable and fighting a terrible respiratory infection.
Herd immunity is a thing.
Influenza killing people is a thing.
You getting the flu shot, should be a thing.
Credit: Nurse Amanda Catherine Bitz
Sam’s Club partnered with primary care telehealth provider 98point6 to offer members virtual visits.
1. Sam’s Club now offers members access to telehealth visits through a text-based app run by 98point6.
2. Members can purchase a $20 quarterly subscription for the first three months; the regular sign-up fee is $30 per person. After the first three months, members pay $33.50 every three months.
3. The subscription gives members unlimited telehealth visits for $1 per visit. The service has board-certified physicians available 24 hours per day, seven days a week.
4. Members can also subscribe for pediatric care.
5. Physicians can diagnose and treat 400 conditions including cold and flu-like symptoms as well as allergies. They can also monitor chronic conditions including diabetes, depression and anxiety.
6. Members can use the app to obtain prescriptions and lab orders as well.
7. Sam’s Club has around 600 stores in the U.S. and Puerto Rico and millions of members.
“Offering access to telemedicine was on our roadmap in the pre-COVID world, but the current environment expedited the need for this service to be easily accessible, readily available and most of all, affordable,” said John McDowell, vice president of pharmacy operations and divisional merchandise at Sam’s Club. “Through providing access to the 98point6 app in a pilot, we quickly realized that our members were eager to have mobile telehealth options and we wanted to provide this healthcare solution to all of our members as a standalone option.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, physicians and health systems implemented telemedicine solutions with unprecedented speed. In doing so, they went from mostly lagging behind payers and disruptors in digital medicine, to becoming the anchors who kept patients and doctors connected during the greatest health crisis in a century.
But over the past few weeks, we’ve detected a marked shift in the tone and focus of conversations around telemedicine with doctors and executives. Universally, systems have seen a drop in virtual visits as in-person care has returned—and most agree that today’s levels of telemedicine visits are lower than ideal.
“We peaked at 45 percent of outpatient visits delivered virtually in early May. Now telemedicine accounts for just five percent,” one physician leader told us. “I don’t know what ‘percent virtual’ is ideal, but I’m pretty sure it’s more than five percent.” Another leader described a shift from “rally to reality”.
At the height of the crisis, the entire system was singularly focused on keeping patients connected to care, bolstered by a loosening of regulatory and payment restrictions.
As systems now plan for a long-term virtual care strategy, we’re sensing a shift in focus to pre-COVID challenges: operations (centralization is needed to create a sustainable model, but each doctor wants to do virtual visits his own way), payment (should we really invest before we’re sure health plans will continue to pay at parity?), and turf battles (reemerging political discussions of who “owns” virtual care strategy).
Health plans, retailers and disruptors recognize the power of virtual care to build relationships and loyalty with consumers—and will invest heavily behind it. Providers have the advantage today. But to keep it, they’ll have to get out of their own way and continue to build, scale and refine their virtual care platforms.
Walmart plans to open a 6,500-square-foot standalone clinic in Middleburg, Fla., according to the Jacksonville Record & Observer, which cited plans filed with the local water management district.
The new clinic is part of the expansion Walmart Health announced July 22. The new health center will offer primary care, urgent care, labs, imagining, counseling, optical and hearing services, according to the report. A timeline for when the clinic will open has not been released.
In addition to expanding into Florida, Walmart Health is also planning to open a few clinics in the Chicago market. The company already has freestanding health centers in Georgia and Arkansas.
Health Alliance Plan (HAP) and Henry Ford Health System have furthered their partnership through the release of Pivotal, a new health plan for Michigan-based businesses.
The plan was created for businesses with more than 100 employees and offers customized benefit options for each company.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT
Pivotal’s network includes seven hospitals, more than 6,000 physicians and 3,500 ancillary providers including urgent care, labs, radiology, imaging, rehab services, long-term care and nursing facilities, and physical, occupational and speech therapy.
Its members will have access to providers within the Henry Ford Health System, Henry Ford Physician and Jackson Health networks, Henry Ford Allegiance Health, as well as HAP’s ancillary provider and pharmacy network, and its contracted pediatric providers.
The plan recognizes the current need for telehealth services by offering virtual care for zero cost-share for in-network visits.
Members can use Pivotal’s telehealth offerings in three different ways: through at-home video visits, clinic-to-clinic video visits where providers can connect with specialists at other facilities, and with e-visits where non-emergency visits are conducted through email.
Pivotal plans also come with concierge services that include personalized onboarding for every employer group, phone support, as well as guaranteed same-day appointments with a primary care physician for sick visits and specialist appointments within 10 business days.
THE LARGER TREND
HAP has been working with Henry Ford since it became a subsidiary of the health system in 1986.
Henry Ford leveraged another partnership with CarePort during the COVID-19 public health emergency to communicate directly with post-acute care providers to share the COVID-19 testing status of patients. This allows providers to take the necessary safety precautions, including deciding if the facility can admit the patient at all, triaging care and managing the use of personal protective equipment.
ON THE RECORD
“HAP and Henry Ford have a long history of working together and sharing the same focus,” Genord said Dr. Michael Genord, president and CEO of HAP. “Working together, we’ve made sure that as many Michigan businesses as possible have access to high-quality affordable care, whether they’re in Detroit or Jackson or anywhere in between.”
Many children heading back to school—in whichever form that that may take this fall—have skipped their annual visit to the pediatrician. The graphic above highlights the sluggish rebound in pediatric ambulatory volume. While adult primary care visits have mostly bounced back, pediatric visits are still 26 percent below pre-COVID levels.
The drop in visits early in the pandemic also impacted immunizations, with 2.5M regular childhood vaccinations missed in the US during the first quarter of 2020—and early data suggests those seem to be rebounding at a similarly anemic rate.
This lack of pediatric routine care is particularly worrisome as COVID-19 cases in children are climbing, with a 90 percent increase from July to August. Though most of the nation’s largest public school districts have opted to begin the school year with online learning, some districts have already returned to in-person classes, and, unsurprisingly, new cases are already being reported.
While COVID-19 is normally neither severe nor fatal in children, infections among school-age kids put others at risk. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly a quarter of teachers (1.5M) are considered high-risk and almost six percent of seniors (3.3M) live with school-aged children.
Without the traditional back-to-school push for well-child visits, sports physicals, and immunization updates, healthcare providers must think creatively about how to give children with the care they need, whether through personalized communication from pediatricians that assuages parental concerns about office safety, or through more innovative means such as drive-thru vaccination services.
More plans are expected to cover virtual office visits and expanded mental health and well-being offerings.
- Large employers are projecting their health care benefit costs to surpass $15,500 per employee in 2021, Business Group on Health’s annual survey finds.
- That would represent a 5.3% increase in costs, estimated at $14,769 this year.
- The health plans are also expected to expand virtual care, mental health and emotional well-being offerings to employees.
The 5.3% increase is slightly higher than the 5% increases employers projected in each of the last five years, according to the 2021 Large Employers’ Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey.
In line with recent years, employers will cover nearly 70% of costs while employees will bear about 30%, or nearly $4,500, in 2021.
“Health care costs are a moving target and one that employers continue to keep a close eye on,” said Ellen Kelsay, president and CEO of Business Group on Health. “The pandemic has triggered delays in both preventive and elective care, which could mean the projected trend for this year may turn out to be too high. If care returns to normal levels in 2021, the projected trend for next year may prove to be too low. It’s difficult to know where cost increases will land.”
The growth in virtual care is one of the trends identified in the survey. Eight in 10 health plan executives said virtual health will play a significant role in how care is delivered, up from 64% last year and 52% in 2018. More than half (52%) will offer more virtual care options next year.
Nearly all employers will offer telehealth services for minor, acute services while 91% will offer telemental health, and that could grow to 96% by 2023.
Virtual care for musculoskeletal management shows the greatest potential for growth. While 29% will offer musculoskeletal management virtually next year, another 39% are considering adding it by 2023. Employers are also expanding other virtual services including the delivery of health coaching and emotional well-being support. These offerings are expected to increase in the next few years.
“Virtual care is here to stay,” said Kelsay. “The pandemic caused the pace to accelerate at an astronomical rate. And virtual care is now garnering growing interest and receptivity from both employees and providers who increasingly see its benefit.”
Another key trend for employer plans in 2021 is the expansion of access to virtual mental health and emotional well-being services. More than two-thirds (69%) said they provide access to online mental health support resources such as apps, videos, and articles. That number is expected to jump to 88% in 2021.
- More employers are linking health care with workforce strategy: The number of employers who view their health care strategy as an integral part of their workforce strategy increased from 36% in 2019 to 45% this year.
- On-site clinics continue to grow: Nearly three in four respondents (72%) either have a clinic in place or will by 2023. Some employers are expanding services — 34% offer primary care services at the worksite, and an additional 26% plan to have this service available by 2023.
- Growing interest in advanced primary care strategies: Over half of respondents (51%) will have at least one advanced primary care strategy next year up from 46% in 2020. These primary care arrangements, which move toward patient-centered population health management emphasizing prevention, chronic disease management, mental health and whole person care are key focus areas for employers.
- Employers remain concerned about high-cost drug therapies. Two-thirds of respondents (67%) cited the impact of new million-dollar treatments as their top pharmacy benefits management concern.