About 36% of nonelderly adults and 29% of children in the U.S. have delayed or foregone care because of concerns of being exposed to COVID-19 or providers limiting services due to the pandemic, according to new reports from the Urban Institute and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Of those who put off care, more than three-quarters had one or more chronic health conditions and one in three said the result of not getting treatment was worsening health or limiting their ability to work and perform regular daily activities, the research based on polling in September showed.
However, the types of care being delayed are fairly routine. Among those surveyed, 25% put off dental care, while 21% put off checkups and 16% put off screenings or medical tests.
The early days of the pandemic saw widespread halts in non-emergency care, with big hits to provider finances.
In recent months, health systems have emphasized the services can be provided in hospitals and doctors offices safely as long as certain protocols are followed, and at least some research has backed them up. Groups like the American Hospital Association have launched ad campaigns urging people to return for preventive and routine care as well as emergencies.
But patients are apparently still wary, according to the findings based on surveys of about 4,000 adults conducted in September.
The research shows another facet of the systemic inequities harshly spotlighted by the pandemic. People of color are more likely to put off care than other groups. While 34% of Whites said they put off care, that percentage rose to 40% among Blacks and 36% among Latinos.
Income also played a role, as 37% of those with household incomes at or below 250% of the poverty level put off care, compared to 25% of those with incomes above that threshold.
Putting off care has had an impact industrywide, as the normally robust healthcare sector lost 30,000 jobs in January. Molina Healthcare warned last week that utilization will remain depressed for the foreseeable future.
Younger Americans were also impacted, with nearly 30% of parents saying they delayed at least one type of care for their children, while 16% delayed multiple types of care. As with adults, dental care was the most common procedure that was put off, followed by checkups or other preventative healthcare screenings.
The researchers recommended improving communications among providers and patients.
“Patients must be reassured that providers’ safety precautions follow public health guidelines, and that these precautions effectively prevent transmission in offices, clinics, and hospitals,” they wrote. “More data showing healthcare settings are not common sources of transmission and better communication with the public to promote the importance of seeking needed and routine care are also needed.”
“I don’t think we have good enough information to show how we should be deploying telemedicine,” a physician leader recently told us. “If we can’t show that a virtual visit can adequately substitute for an in-person visit, then we should be focusing on making sure patients know it’s safe to come in.” It struck us that viewing telemedicine as a direct substitute for an office visit was a narrow and antiquated way to think about virtual care.
Moreover, the argument that telemedicine visits are potentially cost-increasing if they are “additive” to other care interactions, rather than “substitutive”, is rooted in fee-for-service payment: more patient-provider interactions equals more billable visits, and with more visits, we run the risk of increasing costs.
Telemedicine (both video and phone visits) likelytaps into pent-up demand for accessby patients who would otherwise not seek care. Some patients could be aided by more frequent, brief encounters; this is considered a failure only when viewed through the lens of fee-for-service payment. (Honestly, with primary care accounting for less than 6 percent of total healthcare spending, it’s hard to argue that additional telemedicine visits will be responsible for supercharging the cost of care.) Of course, there are many clinical situations in which in-person interaction—to perform a physical exam, measure vitals, observe a patient—is fundamental. Patients know this, and understand that sometimes they’ll need to be seen in person. But hopefully that next encounter will be more efficient, having already covered the basics.
The ideal care model will look different for different patients, and different kinds of clinical problems—but will likely be a blend of both virtual and in-person interactions, maximizing communication, information-gathering, and patient convenience.
Members of an influential congressional advisory committee on Medicare are torn on how best to regulate telehealth after the COVID-19 public health emergency, hinting at the difficulty Washington faces as it looks to impose guardrails on virtual care without restricting its use after the pandemic ends.
During a Thursday virtual meeting, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission expressed its support of telehealth broadly, but many members noted snowballing use of the new modality could create more fraud and abuse in the system down the line.
Key questions of how much Medicare reimburses for telehealth visits and what type of visits are paid for won’t be easily answered, MedPAC commissioners noted. “This is a really, really difficult nut to crack,” Michael Chernew, MedPAC chairman and a healthcare policy professor at Harvard Medical School, said.
Virtual care has kept much of the industry running during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing patients to receive needed care at home. Much of this was possible due to the declaration of a public health emergency early 2020, allowing Medicare to reimburse for a greater swath of telehealth services and nixing other restrictions on virtual care.
However, much of that freedom is only in place for the duration of the public health emergency, leaving regulators and legislators scrambling to figure which new flexibilities they should codify, and which perhaps are best left in the past along with COVID-19.
It’s a tricky debate as Washington looks to strike a balance between keeping access open and costs low.
In a Thursday meeting, MedPAC debated a handful of policy proposals to try and navigate this tightrope. Analysts floated ideas like making some expansions permanent for all fee-for-service clinicians; covering certain telehealth services for all beneficiaries that can be received in their homes; and covering telehealth services if they meet CMS’ criteria for an allowable service.
But many MedPAC members were wary of making any concrete near-term policy changes, suggesting instead the industry should be allowed to test drive new telehealth regulations after COVID-19 without baking them in permanently.
“I don’t think what we’ve done with the pandemic can be considered pilot testing. I think a lot of this is likely to go forward no matter what we do because the gate has been opened, and it’s going to be really hard to close it,” Marjorie Ginsburg, founder of the Center for Healthcare Decisions, said. But “I see this just exploding into more fraud and abuse than we can even begin imagining.”
Paul Ginsburg, health policy chair at the Brookings Institution, suggested a two-year pilot of any changes after the public health emergency ends.
However, it would be “regressive” to roll back all the gains virtual care has made over the past year, according to Jonathan Perlin, CMO of health system HCA.
“These technologies are such a part of the environment that at this point, I fear [it] would be anachronistic not to accept that reality,” Perlin said.
Among other questions, commissioners were split on how much Medicare should pay for telehealth after the pandemic ends.
That parity debate is perhaps the biggest question mark hanging over the future of the industry. Detractors argue virtual care services involve lower practice costs, as remote physicians not in an office don’t need to shell out for supplies and staff. Paying at parity could distort prices, and cause fee-for-service physicians to prioritize delivering telehealth services over in-person ones, some commissioners warned.
Other MedPAC members pointed out a lower payment rate could stifle technological innovation at a pivotal time for the healthcare industry.
MedPAC analysts suggested paying lower rates for virtual care services than in-person ones, and paying less for audio-only services than video.
Commissioners agreed audio-only services should be allowed, but that a lower rate was fair. Commissioner Dana Gelb Safran, SVP at Well Health, suggested CMS should consider outlining certain services where video must be used out of clinical necessity.
Previously, telehealth services needed a video component to be reimbursed. Proponents argue expanded access to audio-only services will improve care access, especially for low-income populations that might not have the broadband access or technology to facilitate a video visit.
Another major concern for commissioners is how permanently expanding telehealth access would affect direct-to-consumer telehealth giants like Teladoc and Amwell. If all telehealth services delivered at home are covered, that could allow the private companies to “really take over the industry,” Larry Casalino, health policy chief in the Weill Cornell Department of Healthcare Policy and Research, said.
Because of the lower back-end costs for virtual care than in-office services, paying vendors the same rate as in-office physicians could drive a lot of brick-and-mortar doctors out of business, commissioners warned.
The annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference is one of the best ways to diagnose the financial condition of the healthcare industry. Every January, every key stakeholder — providers, payers, pharmaceutical companies, tech companies, medical device and supply companies as well as bankers, venture capital and private equity firms — comes together in one exam room, even when it is virtual, for their annual check-up. But as we all know, this January is unlike any other as this past year has been unlike any other year.
You would have to go back to the banking crisis of 2008 to find a similar moment from an economic perspective. At the time, we were asking, “Are banks too big to fail?” The concern behind the question was that if they did fail, the economic chaos that would follow would lead to a collapse with the consumer ultimately picking up the tab. The rest is history.
Healthcare is “Too Vital to Fail”
2020 was historic in too many ways to count. But in a year when healthcare providers faced the worst financial crisis in the history of healthcare, the headline is that they are still standing. And what they proved is that in contrast to banks in 2008 that were seen by many as “too big to fail,” healthcare providers in 2020 proved that they were “too vital to fail.”
One of the many unique things about the COVID-19 pandemic is we are simultaneously experiencing a health crisis, where healthcare providers are the front line in the battle, and an economic crisis, felt in a big way in healthcare given the unique role hospitals play as the largest employer in most communities. Hospitals and health systems have done the vast majority of testing, treating, monitoring, counseling, educating and vaccinating all while searching for PPE and ventilators, and conducting clinical trials. And that’s just the beginning of the list.
Stop and think about that for a minute. What would we have done without them? Thinking through that question will give you some appreciation for the critical, challenging and central role that healthcare providers have had to play over the past year.
Simply stated, healthcare providers are the heart of healthcare, both clinically (essentially 100 percent of the care) and financially (over 50 percent of the $4 trillion annual spend on U.S. healthcare). Over the last year they stepped up and they stepped in at the moment where we needed them the most. This was despite the fact that, like most businesses, they were experiencing calamitous losses with no assurances of any assistance.
Healthcare is “Pandemic-Proof”
This was absolutely the worst-case scenario and the biggest test possible for our nation’s healthcare delivery system. Patient volume and therefore revenue dropped by over 50 percent when the panic of the pandemic was at its peak, driving over $60 billion in losses per month across hospitals and healthcare providers. At the same time, they were dramatically increasing their expenses with PPE, ventilators and additional staff. This was not heading in a good direction. While failure may not have been seen as an option, it was clearly a possibility.
The CARES Act clearly provided a temporary lifeline, providing funding for our nation’s hospitals to weather the storm. While there are more challenging times ahead, it is now clear that most are going to make it to the other side. The system of care in our country is often criticized, but when faced with perhaps the most challenging moment in the history of healthcare, our nation’s hospitals and health systems stepped up heroically and performed miraculously. The work of our healthcare providers on the front line and those who supported them was and is one thing that we all should be exceptionally proud of and thankful for.In 2020, they proved that not only is our nation’s healthcare system too vital to fail, but also that it is “pandemic proof.”
Listening to Front Line at the 2021 J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference
There has never been a more important year to listen to the lessons from healthcare providers. They are and were the front line of our fight against COVID-19. If there was a class given about how to deal with a pandemic at an institutional level, this conference is where those lessons were being taught.
This year at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, CEOs, and CFOs from many of the most prestigious and most well-respected health systems in the world presented including AdventHealth, Advocate Aurora Health, Ascension, Baylor Scott & White Health, CommonSpirit Health, Henry Ford Health System, Intermountain Healthcare, Jefferson Health, Mass General Brigham, Northwell Health, OhioHealth, Prisma Health, ProMedica Health System, Providence, Spectrum Health and SSM Health.
I’ve been in healthcare for 30 years and this is my fifth year of writing up the summary of the non-profit provider track of the conference for Becker’s Healthcare to help share the wisdom of the crowd of provider organizations that share their stories. Clearly, this year was different and not because the presentations were virtual, but because they were inspirational.
What did we learn? The good news is that they have made many changes that have the potential to move healthcare in a much better direction and to get to a better place much faster. So, this year instead of providing you a nugget from each presentation, I am going to take a shot at summarizing what they collectively have in motion to stay vital after COVID.
10 Moves Healthcare Providers are Making to Stay Vital After-COVID
As a leader in healthcare, you will never have a bigger opportunity to drive change than right now. Smart leaders are framing this as essentially “before-COVID (BC)” and “after-COVID (AC)” and using this moment as their burning platform to drive change. Credit to the team at Providence for the acronym, but every CEO talked about this concept. As the saying goes, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Well, we’ve certainly had a crisis, so here is a list of what the top health systems are doing to ensure that they don’t waste it and that they stay vital after-COVID:
1. Take Care of Your Team and They’ll Take Care of You: In a crisis, you can either come together as a team or fall apart. Clearly there has been a significant and stunning amount of pressure on healthcare providers. Many are fearing that mental health might be our nation’s next pandemic in the near future because they are seeing it right now with their own team. Perhaps one of their biggest lessons from this crisis has been the need to address the mental, physical and spiritual health of both team members as well as providers. They have put programs in place to help and have also built a tremendous amount of trust with their team by, in many cases, not laying off and/or furloughing employees. While they have made cuts in other areas such as benefits, this collective approach proved incredibly beneficial. And the last point here that relates to thinking differently about their team is that similar to other businesses, many health systems are making remote arrangements permanent for certain administrative roles and moving to a flexible approach regarding their team and their space in the future.
2. Focus on Health Equity, Not Just Health Care: This was perhaps the most notable and encouraging change from presentations in past years at J.P. Morgan. I have been going to the conference for over a decade, and I’ve never heard someone mention this term or outline their efforts on “health equity” — this year, nearly everyone did. In the past, they have outlined many wonderful programs on “social determinants of health,” but this year they have seen the disproportionate impact of COVID on low-income communities bringing the ongoing issue of racial disparities in access to care and outcomes to light. As the bedrock of employment in their community, this provides an opportunity to not just provide health care, but also health equity, taking an active role to help make progress on issues like hunger, homelessness, and housing. Many are making significant investments in a number of these and other areas.
3. Take the Lead in Public Health — the Message is the Medicine:One of the greatest failings of COVID, perhaps the greatest lesson learned, is the need for clear and consistent messaging from a public health perspective. That is a role that healthcare providers can and should play. In the pandemic, it represented the greatest opportunity to save lives as the essence of public health is communication — the message is the medicine. A number of health systems stepped into this opportunity to build trust and to build their brand, which are essentially one in the same. Some organizations have created a new role — a Chief Community Health Officer — which is a good way to capture the work that is in motion relative to social determinants of health as well as health equity. Many understand the opportunity here and will take the lead relative to vaccine distribution as clear messaging to build confidence is clearly needed.
4. Make the Home and Everywhere a Venue of Care:A number of presenters stated that “COVID didn’t change our strategy, it accelerated it.” For the most part, they were referring to virtual visits, which increased dramatically now representing around 10 percent of their visits vs. 1 percent before-COVID. One presenter said, “Digital has been tested and perfected during COVID,” but that is only considering the role we see digital playing in this moment. It is clear some organizations have a very narrow tactical lens while others are looking at the opportunity much more strategically. For many, they are looking at a “care anywhere and everywhere” strategy. From a full “hospital in the home” approach to remote monitoring devices, it is clear that your home will be seen as a venue of care and an access point moving forward. The pandemic of 2020 may have sparked a new era of “post-hospital healthcare” — stay tuned.
5. Bury Your Budget and Pivot to Planning:The budget process has been a source of incredible distrust, dissatisfaction and distraction for every health system for decades. The chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic forced every organization to bury their budget last year. With that said, many of the organizations that presented are now making a permanent shift away from a “budget-based culture” where the focus is on hitting a now irrelevant target set that was set six to nine months ago to a “performance-based culture” where the focus is on making progress every day, week, month and quarter. Given that the traditional annual operating budget process has been the core of how health systems have operated, this shift to a rolling forecast and a more dynamic planning process is likely the single most substantial and permanent change in how hospitals and health systems operate due to COVID. In other words, it is arguably a much bigger headline than what’s happened with virtual visits.
6. Get Your M&A Machine in Motion: It was clear from the presentations that activity around acquisitions is going to return, perhaps significantly. These organizations have strong balance sheets and while the strong have gotten stronger during COVID, the weak have in many cases gotten weaker. Many are going to be opportunistic to acquire hospitals, but at the same time they have concluded that they can’t just be a system of care delivery. They are also focused on acquiring and investing in other types of entities as well as forming more robust partnerships to create new revenue streams. Organizations that already had diversified revenue streams in place came through this pandemic the best. Most hospitals are overly reliant on the ED and surgical volume. Trying to drive that volume in a value-based world, with the end of site of service differentials and the inpatient only list, will be an even bigger challenge in the future as new niche players enter the market. As I wrote in the headline of my summary two years ago, “It’s the platform, stupid.” There are better ways to create a financial path forward that involve leveraging their assets — their platform — in new and creative ways.
7. Hey, You, Get into the Cloud:With apologies for wrapping a Rolling Stones song into a conference summary, one of the main things touted during presentations was “the cloud” and their ability to pull clinical, operational and financial dashboards together to monitor the impact of COVID on their organization and organize their actions. Focus over the last decade has been on the clinical (implementing EHRs), but it is now shifting to “digitizing operations” with a focus on finance and operations (planning, cost accounting, ERPs, etc.) as well as advanced analytics and data science capabilities to automate, gather insight, manage and predict. It is clear that the cloud has moved from a curiosity to a necessity for health systems, making this one of the biggest areas of investment for every health system over the next decade.
8. Make Price Transparency a Key Differentiator: One of the great lessons from Amazon (and others) is that you can make a lot of money when you make something easy to buy. While many health systems are skeptical of the value of the price transparency requirements, those that have a deep understanding of both their true cost of care and margins are using this as an opportunity to prove their value and accelerate their strategy to become consumer-centric. While there is certainly a level of risk, no business has ever been unsuccessful because they made their product easier to understand and access. Because healthcare is so opaque, there is an opening for healthcare providers to build trust, which is their main asset, and volume, which is their main source of revenue, by becoming stunningly easy to do business with. This may be tough sledding for some as this isn’t something healthcare providers are known for. To understand this, spend a few minutes on Tesla’s website vs. Ford’s. The concept of making something easy, or hard, to buy will become crystal clear as fast as a battery-driven car can go from zero to 60.
9. Make Care More Affordable:This represents the biggest challenge for hospitals and health systems as they ultimately need to be on the right side of this issue or the trust that they have will disappear and they will remain very vulnerable to outside players. All are investing in advanced cost accounting systems (time-driven costing, physician costing, supply, and drug costing) to truly understand their cost and use that as a basis to price more strategically in the market. Some are dropping prices for shoppable services and using loss leader strategies to build their brand. The incoming Secretary of Health and Human Services has a strong belief regarding the accountability of health systems to be consumer centric. The health systems that understand this are working to get ahead of this issue as it is likely one of their most significant threats (or opportunities) over the next decade. This means getting all care to the right site of care, evaluating every opportunity to improve, and getting serious about eliminating the need for expensive care through building healthy communities. If you’re worried about Wal-Mart or Amazon, this is your secret weapon to keep them on the sideline.
10. Scale = Survival: One of the big lessons here is that the strong got stronger, the weak got weaker. For the strong, many have been able to “snapback” in financial performance because they were resilient. They were able to designate COVID-only facilities, while keeping others running at a higher capacity. To be clear, while most health systems are going to get to the other side and are positioned better than ever, there are many others that will continue to struggle for years to come. According to our data at Strata, we see 25 percent operating at negative margins right now and another 50 percent just above breakeven. They key to survival moving forward, for those that don’t have a captive market, will be scale. If this pandemic proved one thing relative to the future of health systems it is this — scale equals survival.
When Will We Return to Normal?
Based on what the projections that these health systems shared, the “new normal” for health systems for the first half of 2021 will be roughly 95 percent of prior year inpatient volume with a 20 percent year-over-year drop in ED volume and a drop of 10-15 percent in observation visits. So, the pain will continue, but given the adjustments that were already made in 2020, it looks like they will be able to manage through COVID effectively. While there will be a pickup in the second half of 2021, the safe bet is that a “return to normal” pre-COVID volumes likely won’t occur until 2022. And there are some who believe that some of the volume should have never been there to begin with and we might see a permanent shift downward in ED volume as well as in some other areas.
With that said, I’ll steal a quote from Bert Zimmerli, the CFO of Intermountain Healthcare, who said, “Normal wasn’t ever nearly good enough in healthcare.”In that spirit, the goal should be to not return to normal, but rather to use this moment as an opportunity to take the positive changes driven by COVID — from technology to processes to areas of focus to a sense of responsibility — and make them permanent.
Thanking Our “Healthcare Heroes”
We’ll never see another 2020 again, hopefully. With that said, one of the silver linings of the year is everything we learned in healthcare. The most important lesson was this — in healthcare there are literally heroes everywhere. To each of them, I just want to say “thank you” for being there for us when we needed you the most. We should all be writing love letters to those on the front line who risked their lives to save others. Our nation’s healthcare system has taken a lot of criticism through the years from those on the outside, often with a blind eye to how things work in practice vs. in concept. But this year we all got to see first-hand what’s happening inside of healthcare — the heroic work of our healthcare providers and those who support them.
They faced the worst crisis in the history of healthcare. They responded heroically and were there for our families and friends.
They proved that healthcare is too vital to fail. They proved that healthcare is pandemic-proof.
It turns out it’s not just the kids who aren’t getting snow days this year. This week, we spoke with an executive at a health system hit hard by Wednesday’s Nor’easter, and asked how the system was faring with the expected 18 inches of snowfall. He replied that the medical group was as busy as usual.
With all the work this spring to expand telemedicine capabilities, clinic staff were able to reach out to patients the day before the storm, and proactively convert a majority of scheduled in-person clinic visits to telemedicine. “Normally we would’ve been closed, and most appointments rescheduled for weeks down the road,” he told us. Instead, they were able to keep most of those visits in their scheduled time slot.
“Now that we have a systemwide process for telemedicine, I don’t think we’ll have a reason for the clinic to take a snow day again.” It’s a clear win-win for the system and patients: patient care seamlessly goes on. It’s easy to see the many use cases for the ability to toggle between in-person and virtual visits. A parent is stuck at home with a sick kid, and can’t make her endocrinologist appointment? Moved to virtual! A patient has an unexpected business trip taking him out of town? Don’t cancel, let’s do that follow-up visit via telemedicine.
We’ve been worried about the slowdown in progress made on telemedicine as patients switched back to in-person visits across the summer and fall. The ability to continue patient care during a record-breaking snowstorm is a perfect illustration of why it’s critical not to “backslide” with virtual care: meeting patients where they are, regardless of circumstances, is an essential part of building long-term loyalty and care continuity.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused national health care spending to go down this year — the first time that’s ever happened.
The big picture:Any big recession depresses the use of health services because people have less money to spend. But this pandemic has also directly attacked the health system, causing people to defer or skip care for fear of becoming infected.
By the numbers: Year-to-date spending on health services is down about 2% from last year. Health spending for the calendar year may end up lower than it was in 2019.
In April, when the pandemic forced many facilities to temporarily close, spending on health services had fallen an eye-popping 32% on an annualized basis.
The largest drop-offs were in outpatient care. Telehealth visits increased dramatically but did not make up all of the difference.
Context: This is the first time expenditures for patient care have fallen year-over-year since data became available in the 1960s.
What’s next: Spending and utilization have been recovering, but could fall again if the current spike in cases prompts either hospitals or patients to again hold off on elective care.
There has been a decline in cancer screenings and visits to manage chronic conditions, but it will take more research before we know precisely how this has affected outcomes.
A quick stop at the local Whole Foods Market recently yielded surprising insights into the dilemma faced by physician practices in the COVID-era telemedicine boom.
The store location opened just last year, part of a brand-new residential and shopping complex designed for busy professionals. It’s larger than the old-style, pre-Amazon era stores, and was designed to integrate Amazon’s online grocery operations into the bricks-and-mortar retail setting. There’s a portion of the store set aside for Amazon “shoppers” to receive and pack online orders for pickup and delivery, along with an expanded array of convenience-food offerings for the app-powered consumer to scan and purchase.
But when COVID hit, the volume of online orders went through the roof, and the store hired a small army of Amazon shoppers (including one of our own adult children who’s on a “gap year”) to keep up with demand. The result has been barely controlled chaos—easily 70 percent of the shoppers in the aisles last weekend were young Amazon employees “shopping” on behalf of online customers. They’re all held to an Amazon-level productivity standard, which makes the pace of their cart-pushing somewhat frantic and erratic. And the discreet area at the front of the store for managing the Amazon orders has become a noisy hub, making entering and exiting the store problematic. Even the “regular” store employees at Whole Foods have begun to complain about the disruption caused by the Amazon fulfillment operation.
It’s acautionary tale for traditional physician practices and other care delivery organizations looking to “integrate” telemedicine into normal operations. Integration sounds great in theory, but in practice raises important questions:
1)What physical space should be set aside for delivering virtual care?
2)Should telemedicine work be done in a separate, centralized location, or in existing clinic space?
3) How does the staffing of clinics need to change to meet the demand for virtual care?
4) How can we flex staffing up and down based on demand for telemedicine?
5)If new staff are required, how will they be incorporated into the existing team—or should they be managed separately?
6)What operational metrics will they be held accountable for, and what impact will those metrics have on other operational goals?
If Amazon, a worldwide leader online, renowned for running tight, precision, productivity-driven operations, is having trouble figuring out physical-virtual integration at the front end of their business, imagine how difficult these challenges will be for healthcare providers. The sooner we start to dig into these issues and find sustainable solutions, the better.
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 holdor 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.
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.