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Virtual visits to mature in 2021

The pandemic forced virtual care's hand in 2020, but healthcare systems and patients have found that the benefits of telehealth outweigh the drawbacks.

Although 2020 is nearing its end and COVID-19 vaccines are now being distributed, healthcare's shift to virtual appointments is just getting underway.

After rapid adoption during the pandemic, healthcare systems will continue to embrace the benefits of virtual visits in 2021, but they'll also look for and find ways to address telehealth's weaknesses, according to Forrester Research's 2021 healthcare predictions report.

Arielle Trzcinski, Forrester analyst and a lead author on the predictions report, said improved efficiency, undeniable convenience and greater intimacy in the patient-provider relationship will go a long way toward fanning the momentum for virtual visits.

"We're starting to see patients establishing a deeper relationship with their providers by having this more continuous and frequent connection point with them as they're able to engage with them over virtual means," she said. "We see this being an attractive alternative that meets the demands consumers have had for a long time for healthcare."

Virtual visit momentum to continue

Greater adoption of virtual care will continue to produce tangible benefits such as time saved and convenience, Trzcinski said.

Arielle TrzcinskiArielle Trzcinski

Another benefit is the connection between providers and their patients, especially those with chronic conditions, she said. A continuous connection may give providers a more intimate understanding of what's happening with a patient's health, enabling them to intervene before a condition is exacerbated.

"It will ultimately help lead to improved outcomes, so physicians are going to continue to encourage patients; and patients, once they use virtual care, are [often] pleased with the process and want to reuse the service," she said.

Additionally, Trzcinski said healthcare systems invested millions of dollars into virtual visit platforms in 2020 and will be working to generate a greater return on those significant investments in 2021.

Chris LaCoeChris LaCoe

At Penn State Health, a multi-hospital healthcare system based in Hershey, Penn., that employs more than 2,300 physicians and includes 125 medical facilities, Chris LaCoe, vice president of operations, said the healthcare system leaned on two virtual visit platforms from Zoom and Amwell -- and saw enormous adoption.

Before the pandemic, Penn State Health used an Amwell platform for limited telehealth offerings for specific programs such as Penn State Health OnDemand, which services urgent care patients, as well as patients with a neurodegenerative disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The pandemic caused the healthcare system to quickly build out its Amwell platform to include general visits, while also adding a HIPAA-compliant Zoom offering.

"We did more in the last six months than we did in the last three to four years," LaCoe said regarding the healthcare system's telehealth services. "We've exceeded 100,000 enrollments on our platform, we've done over 10,000 free coronavirus screenings and conducted well over 60,000 scheduled visits for patients."

In 2021, Penn State Health plans to help patients troubleshoot technology issues, and it plans to better integrate its two virtual health platforms with its Cerner Millennium electronic health record (EHR), making data collection from virtual visits easier, which LaCoe believes is the key to sustaining a telehealth program.

"It's challenging for systems like ours where we're in a growing acquisition mode, we have multiple EHRs serving patients and providers," he said. "We're working on a lot of optimization with the providers -- how do we make things more streamlined, more efficient for them to be able to provide care to patients."

Balancing virtual, in-person visits

Healthcare systems will also have to search for the technology's sweet spot, as not all appointments should be virtualized. Finding that balance will be a key focus for UT Health Austin CIO Aaron Miri in 2021.

Aaron MiriAaron Miri

Miri said, while virtual visits provide clear benefits for quick and convenient appointments for some conditions, there are clinics such as women's health clinics that often deal with complex and sensitive health issues where telemedicine isn't the best option.

This is our new normal in healthcare.
Arielle TrzcinskiAnalyst, Forrester Research

"We will absolutely have some sort of telehealth experience out there -- we will continue to extend care beyond the four walls," Miri said. "But it will be critical to have right place, right time, right care, right type of delivery."

Indeed, Forrester's Trzcinski said that while the use of virtual care will continue in 2021, the majority of virtual visits will focus on chronic patients and routine care. 

"This is our new normal in healthcare," she said. "It's going to be virtual-first if it's appropriate, and, if not, [we'll] figure out how to bring the patient into the office."

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