Reza Amin, Ph.D., founder of Bastion Health.
The Covid-19 pandemic presented an opportunity for healthcare providers to expand their slate of video, telephone and other alternatives to in-person appointments. Now, telehealth solutions offered by brick-and-mortar clinics are rising alongside digitally native companies to meet the needs of a new generation. The result: At-home testing and telehealth tools are becoming an accepted convenience of everyday life. As the founder of a digital health platform, I’ve been interested in how the industry has changed over the past couple years.
Patient Demand Remains High
McKinsey has tracked telehealth adoption closely since the beginning of the pandemic. Their surveys reveal that telehealth use depends heavily on the specialty of medicine involved. Psychiatry (accounting for 50% of all appointments) and substance-use disorder treatment (30%) were leading the rise in popularity in the pandemic’s first year. The results suggest these trends were patient-driven―that the type of care involved dictates consumers’ receptiveness to video appointments as an alternative to in-person appointments.
Patients remained interested in using telehealth even as the number of Covid-19 hospitalizations fell from its January peak. Sixty percent of patients in another McKinsey survey agree, broadly speaking, that virtual health is more convenient than in-person care. Another survey found that 73% of existing telemedicine users expected to continue using the technology at the same rate or higher post-pandemic.
The telehealth market is already racing toward the next big thing. Venture capital funding among U.S.-based digital health startups amounted to $29.1 billion across 729 deals in 2021, according to data from Rock Health―an amount that nearly doubled the record set in 2020. Interest among investors is diverse. A brick-and-mortar retail company, Best Buy, even acquired a digital healthcare firm late last year.
The Need To Make Telehealth Accessible
After the Covid-19 pandemic was declared a public health emergency, Medicare facilitated the accessibility of psychiatric services via interactive video-based telehealth by paying for virtual mental health visits furnished by rural health clinics and federally qualified health centers. This policy was then extended beyond the end of the public health emergency declaration. The Department of Health and Human Services announced in December that other temporary Medicare services authorized during the public health emergency would remain in place through 2023, giving HHS time to evaluate whether these services should be permanently added to the Medicare telehealth services list.
Rural and low-income patients are among the most vulnerable during any public health crisis. For many, telehealth appointments are more accessible than in-person appointments even in non-pandemic times. To that end, the diversity of medical needs addressed by telehealth services is growing.
Digital health solutions have provided at-home monitoring, screenings, diagnostics, telehealth support for at-home assessment, treatment, health coaching, care management and telepharmacy for at-home prescription delivery and management. One innovation makes all of these things possible: the smartphone. The rise of mobile apps has ushered in a host of new digital health solutions. By 2021, it was estimated that 47% of all apps were focused on managing specific health conditions, up from 28% in 2015. Even still, these tools were not meeting their potential among certain demographic groups.
In my own field, I’ve noticed online platforms focusing on men’s health, for example, are relatively young compared to some of the women’s healthcare solutions that flooded the market over the last decade. The FemTech industry—software and technology companies that focus exclusively on women’s needs—reportedly generated almost $821 million (paywall) in global revenue and received $592 million in venture capital investment in 2019 alone. Plenty of room for innovation remains.
User-Centric Solutions That Eliminate Fragmentation
In my view, the post-pandemic generation of digital healthcare tools must focus on user-centric solutions that solve for the fragmentation of healthcare. For providers, the race to meet the demand for at-home testing and telehealth platforms has come with a challenge. Integrating digital patient data from multiple remote-monitoring sources, with their diverse array of functions and codes and models, into classic EMRs is a 21st-century problem in need of new solutions.
According to one 2019 survey, one-third of hospital executives believe they can successfully exchange data with other health systems and industry partners. Only 59% feel they are interoperable with their payers, while 69% said they can access all the data they need from within their own organization. The race to integrate patient data has spawned a cottage industry of its own.
The result is a healthcare ecosystem in a state of transition. The potential for AI-driven tools to solve for population-level health needs is often just an app away. Imagining their potential isn’t difficult. Yet until or unless the existing digital infrastructure of hospitals and health systems is able to integrate with these innovative tools, their full power will remain untapped.
For healthcare industry leaders, the short-term work of integrating at-home testing and telehealth tools into their organization’s existing logistical and digital structures will be costly in terms of time and effort. I believe that cost will be worth the long-term benefits to their member patients―and, more broadly, the public health.
In that way, the industry revolution toward creating comprehensive, user-friendly health services that offer end-to-end patient solutions presents a significant opportunity. I suggest digital health innovators, founders and investors focus on niche markets and underserved users―the patients most likely to seek help outside the typical healthcare provider infrastructure―to address core business needs and build comprehensive, in-depth solutions that improve health outcomes.
In the future, whole-person digital health platforms will be needed to create an ecosystem―at-home testing, at-home telehealth support, digital pharmacy (i.e., prescription delivery)―that puts the user first without furthering the problem of data fragmentation. It’s the logical endpoint in developing a suite of remote tools that promote better outcomes and healthier patients.