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Virtual care and COVID-19: Telehealth’s time has come

The defining event of 2020—perhaps even of the decade— was the COVID-19 pandemic. The disease’s toll has been disruptive as well as devastating, upending the very foundations of American industry. This has been especially true in healthcare.

Among the more conspicuous disruptions wrought by the coronavirus has been the ascendant role of long-distance care delivery. The pandemic briefly elevated telehealth to new primacy in the middle of 2020. The question is: how long will telehealth’s importance endure?

These are among the questions addressed in the  NRC Health 2021 Healthcare Consumer Trends Report. This article is a brief preview of what the full report concluded. Here’s what the data reveals about the present—and future—of telehealth delivery for American consumers.

Telehealth’s overdue rise

Until 2020, telehealth’s status in the industry was hesitant, at best.

The technological capacity to adopt telehealth had been available for years. There was a long-established consumer appetite for long-distance care delivery. But with the exception of a few stand-out institutions, telehealth’s rise had been continually delayed.

Reimbursement issues were perhaps the largest hurdle preventing telehealth’s adoption into mainstream practice. Lacking a clear consensus on how virtual appointments should be compensated, payers and providers could find no business case to expand their use.

Then COVID-19 happened. Almost overnight, telehealth went from a niche exercise to an essential service. Organizations had to re-orient their entire operations to accommodate it. According to NRC Health data, telehealth usage nearly tripled in the pandemic’s wake, from 7.8% in 2018 to 26.9% today.

What makes a good telehealth appointment?

Alongside this increase in telehealth utilization, NRC Health data has also found a stark increase in consumer enthusiasm for it: 54.9% of consumers report excitement about telehealth today, vs. 47.2% in 2018.

This bump in enthusiasm likely reflects a recent number of positive telehealth encounters. In NRC Health’s feedback surveys from over 150,000 telehealth encounters, 92% reported positive sentiments. That’s certainly good news for the industry. But what exactly made these encounters such a hit with consumers?

Specific features stood out as make-or-break qualities for a positive telehealth appointment.

First, it should come as no surprise that attentive providers make all the difference. 85% of respondents who enjoyed their telehealth encounters reported that their providers seemed “present, attentive, and listening.”

A less significant—though still important—contributor to an encounter’s success was the seamlessness of the technology: 64% of those who enjoyed their virtual encounters remarked that the “quality of the video connection was good,” and 60% said that “making a telehealth connection was easy.”

Another angle to consider is whether consumers are likely to advocate for telehealth appointments. Having had a virtual appointment, would a consumer recommend telehealth to their loved ones? The table below shows some factors that influence this decision:

Telehealth recommenders enjoyed… Telehealth detractors criticized…
1) Attentive, listening providers 1) Concerns about insurance/fees
2) The amount of time spent with providers 2) A lack of emotional support (compared to in-person appointments)
3) Provider courtesy and respect 3) An observed decline in professionalism
4) Ease/accessibility in scheduling 4) Technological or equipment issues

Is telehealth here to stay?

There can be little doubt that telehealth has met its moment. Whether high rates of telehealth utilization will persist, however, is still an open question. The data tells an ambiguous story.

For example, Epic EHR data from over 3700 locations found that telehealth appointments peaked at 69% of all visits in April 2020. Since then, it has declined to around 21% of all visits. That’s far above pre-pandemic levels—but perhaps less than some organizations had hoped for.

Further, while consumers have been enthusiastic about their virtual care, NRC Health’s data has found that only 27% of them plan to make consistent use of it in the future.

All the same, that figure shows that almost a third of all consumers are actively planning to integrate virtual care into their lives. That, plus the year-over-year increases in consumer enthusiasm for it, indicate that organizations would be wise to develop a streamlined telehealth practice.

There is considerable appetite for telehealth, if providers can make it convenient, consistent, high-quality, and affordable.

Much more to learn

This article is just a sampling of the data collected for NRC Health’s annual Healthcare Consumer Trends Report.

In exploring the most urgent trends confronting healthcare consumers today, this report draws from the most comprehensive healthcare-consumer database in the country, including millions of real patients’ comments, as well as surveys of over 300,000  households.

The full report includes:

– An analysis of the digital innovations available to consumers—an opportunity for healthcare

– The factors driving deferral of care appointments, both before and during the pandemic

– Why consumer health-brand loyalty is declining—and what organizations can do about it

– And more!

All in all, the report is an indispensable resource for leaders seeking to prepare their organizations for healthcare’s consumerist future.

Download the NRC Health 2021 Healthcare Consumer Trends Report today—available here.