Although pandemic restrictions have been relaxed in most areas for months, telehealth remains a significant component of healthcare delivery across the United States.
Telehealth’s long-overdue acceptanceis a testament not only to expanded insurer reimbursement policies because of the pandemic, but also to emerging consumer preferences.
“Telehealth is an expectation for patients now,” Amber Humphrey, Vanderbilt University Medical Center Director of Telehealth, told HealthTech Magazine. “They like the convenience and knowing they can include long-distance family members in their care.”
Still, many essential components of medical care cannot be handled virtually – such as physical exams and procedures. Many healthcare leaders and policymakers envision a hybrid healthcare delivery paradigm taking root in the pandemic’s aftermath.
“There are many things that can be done well in a telehealth visit, and having that option allows the patient more flexibility,” said Ryan Palmer, a principal at strategic advisory firm Kennedy, also shared in HealthTech Magazine. “I see the two models of care (in-person and virtual) as complementary.”
What is hybrid healthcare?
Hybrid healthcare is just like it sounds – a combination of in-person and virtual care.
The American Telemedicine Association (ATA) describes hybrid care as going “beyond just the virtual visit and providing a more personalized, flexible, and seamless patient journey, improving both the in-person experience as well as giving patients more autonomy over their care.”
Mobile devices and wearables play a significant role in a hybrid care environment—instead of requiring patients to come into the office for every check-up, these connected devices will allow physicians to remotely monitor patients’ vital signs, such as blood pressure or blood sugar, as well as determine whether patients need to come in for a physical visit or schedule a telehealth appointment.
“Instead of a more generalized approach to patient care, this type of technology harnesses patient data to further personalize care without ever having to leave home,” the ATA wrote.
Hybrid healthcare in action
Atrium Health, a nonprofit hospital system in the Charlotte, N.C., area, started using a hybrid model in April 2020 when it launched a “virtual hospital” at the onset of the pandemic.
The hospital operates on two “floors:” One provides observational care, such as a phone assessment with a nurse, and the other provides acute care, including remote monitoring of vital signs and in-home visits from providers when needed. A Healthcare Dive article about Atrium’s efforts states that the virtual hospital had seen more than 15,000 patients as of September 2020. Of those 15,000 encounters, 13,000 were discharged and only 3 percent needed to escalate to inpatient hospital care.
“The silos were completely destroyed,” Scott Rissmiller, Atrium Health’s Chief Physician Executive told Healthcare Dive. “People were focused just on trying to care for the patient, as we should be.”
One of the areas where the hybrid-healthmodel is being incorporated from the ground level is in care for “long COVID” patients. Cleveland Clinic’s reCOVer Clinic, one of a growing number of programs dedicated to caring for these particular patients, opened in spring 2021.
“While we don’t currently have treatments for (long COVID), we have the ability to help patients with their symptoms and try to understand it better,” Kristen Englund, a Cleveland Clinic infectious disease specialist, told HealthTech Magazine.
Patients begin their reCOVer Clinic journey with a physical examination and a health history review. In a follow-up appointment delivered via telehealth, patients and doctors discuss the results of any tests and review next steps in the patients’ care.
A similar clinic at the University of Washington’s Harborview Medical Center uses data submitted by patients via mobile devices to their electronic health records to better understand and treat COVID’s long-term physical and cognitive effects.
Telehealth—an extension of quality care
The speed with which healthcare organizations will adopt hybrid care models like these is up for debate. But for many experts like Sean Kelly, Chief Medical Officer at digital security firm Imprivata, the widespread adoption of hybrid care models is inevitable.
“Take banking, for example: Most banking activities can be done virtually, but nobody calls it ‘telebanking’ – it’s just banking,” Kelly said in a Healthcare IT News article.
“Mobile devices and virtual technology will become so ingrained in healthcare that the term ‘telehealth’ may disappear from our vocabularies, or at least be absorbed into the accepted vernacular as just an extension of good care.”
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