The Rise of Virtual Healthcare

The Rise of Virtual Healthcare

How we “talk” and interact has changed. Heads down. Headphones on. Thumbs moving. It’s ironic that the more we focus on our small, handheld smartphone, the more we have access to the larger world around us. When sitting on a park bench, we can call loved ones, shop at Amazon, watch Netflix, listen to Spotify and schedule appointments. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to think that most people (especially Millennials) could pretty much operate their whole world on a smartphone.

As part of our continued focus on consumerism in healthcare, Market Strategies monitors and tracks how consumers use technology. In this article, we explore telehealth with an emphasis on virtual healthcare—an attractive option to busy consumers who are now accustomed to getting what they need, the moment they need it. For healthcare consumers, this means convenient, high-quality, immediate access to care for themselves and family members that costs less than traditional office visits.

What we’re learning from our own research is helping healthcare providers, health systems and insurers offer the right tools at the right time to connect consumers with the care they expect.

How are consumers currently using virtual healthcare?

In our most recent study with 1,000 consumers age 18 and older, we assessed awareness, current usage and likelihood to seek care in the future across a variety of healthcare settings, including:

  • Traditional physician offices
  • Non-traditional care settings such as retail and stand-alone clinics, urgent care centers and virtual visits

By definition, virtual visits offer consumers or patients the ability to use their computer, tablet or smartphone to connect with a physician through online chat or video. Though current adoption rates of virtual visits are comparatively lower than other care settings across the consumers we surveyed, it is the only care setting where expected “likelihood to use” in the future is higher than current usage. Today, only 16% of consumers who say they are very likely to seek virtual care believe that their physician offers virtual visits through online chat or video.

Market Strategies will continue to monitor this trend, but we fully expect virtual care to continue increasing in adoption—eventually surpassing usage of retail and stand-alone clinics—particularly as more providers and insurers offer and promote this option.  As a busy mom of two young boys and a baby on the way, virtual visits save time, are more convenient to schedule and spare me the hassle of battling cross-town traffic for a simple diagnostic appointment like a common cold or earache. Telehealth options overall also offer extended hours for care, which is another major plus for many busy consumers.

Future Usage

Of the general public consumers we surveyed, only 5% have had a virtual visit. Yet what is striking is that over one-quarter of consumers who received care through a virtual visit are very likely to seek virtual care again. Additionally, of all consumers, 12% are very likely to seek virtual visit care in the future, and that likelihood is comparable across 25 through 54 year olds.

What influences consumers to use virtual visits?

Healthcare consumerism is on the rise, and people are increasingly more vested in purchasing decisions for their individual health plans, health products and services, and care and treatment. With access to more options for care, consumers are highly driven and influenced by convenience and ‘on demand’ care. They expect fast, easy, quality care provided by a physician, even for non-traditional forms of care settings. For virtual visits, increased consumer preference for technological capabilities reveals that the convenience of on-demand care from home or work also has a major impact on choice.

Just as we have become accustomed to using our smartphones and devices to arrive at our destination and ensure our Chai latte is ready upon arrival, we are now using them for on-demand healthcare. Market Strategies expects to see consumers’ need for convenience, quality and lower-cost options continue to drive increased preference and usage of virtual care.

Impact of Features on Likelihood to Use

Key features that impact consumer choice for non-traditional healthcare settings including virtual visits, retail clinics and stand-alone clinics most often relate to:

  • Location or convenience
  • Appointment availability or extended hours
  • Convenience of filling prescriptions onsite
  • Lower cost

How is new technology changing the way consumers get care?

Traditional healthcare settings continue to show higher rates of usage, although virtual visits show signs of increased adoption. Getting an annual exam or treatment for the common cold or flu is largely still through a traditional doctor office visit, but other non-traditional forms are closing that gap. Seeking care through a virtual visit to treat a cold or flu is not far behind that of retail clinics, stand-alone clinics or urgent care settings.

Willingness to Seek Care for Cold/Flu

Many of you may have seen UnitedHealthcare’s recent TV ad promoting virtual visits. In it, a couple is dancing to the tune from Dirty Dancing called “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” while preparing dinner. The woman runs toward the man and jumps into the air to recreate the famous dance scene, but he wasn’t expecting it. They both fall onto the dining table—breaking it and sending food flying—before crashing to the floor. The couple uses a virtual visit to talk with the doctor. He asks what happened, and the woman responds, “I came in too hot.” It makes me laugh every time and is a great example of how virtual visits are becoming increasingly popular among consumers, especially for routine treatments, convenience from home or work, on-demand care and extended hours.

Various industry publications align with our findings that virtual healthcare options are increasing as more physicians, hospitals, health plans and even new companies recognize the trend. More healthcare insurers are offering virtual office visit coverage, benefits and technologies to help their members get care including Aetna, Anthem, several Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, Optum and UnitedHealthcare. One of the top service providers that insurers are partnering with to offer virtual visits is American Well.

Virtual healthcare offers greater access to care that may be more cost effective and can help reduce more costly care access, such as emergency room visits. We are already seeing growth in this sector. Accenture recently reported that investment in on-demand healthcare companies is expected to quadruple to $1 billion by the end of 2017. It will be interesting to monitor how technology continues to unfold in the age of healthcare consumerism and who the key market players will be. Providers and insurers who offer telehealth services as early entrants to the marketplace will likely be viewed by consumers as market leaders in on-demand healthcare. Email me if you’re interested in additional findings from our study.

As the focus on consumerism in healthcare continues to grow, Market Strategies will be publishing a series of articles on this topic over the coming months. In our next installment, we will dive deeper into which factors influence preference or choice for a healthcare setting based on treatment for specific conditions.

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Market Strategies interviewed a national sample of 1,000 consumers aged 18 and older between August 24 and August 31, 2015. Respondents were recruited from the Full Circle opt-in online panel of US adults and were interviewed online. The data were weighted by age, gender, and census region to match the demographics of the US population. Due to its opt-in nature, this online panel (like most others) does not yield a random probability sample of the target population. As such, it is not possible to compute a margin of error or to statistically quantify the accuracy of projections. Market Strategies will supply the exact wording of any survey question upon request.

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