“Virtual care.” These are two words I am not sure I would have put together years ago. As a physician, I know what caring for patients is, but how could that care be provided virtually? Don’t you have to be with someone to take care of them?
Recently I typed those two words into a Google search, and there were 1.1 billion results. More than a billion! So it’s safe to say that virtual care is here to stay.
What Is Virtual Care?
Virtual care is a broad term that has come to encompass all the ways health care providers can interact remotely with patients. We’ve given this burgeoning area of interest many different names, such as telemedicine, telehealth, and remote patient monitoring. But whatever we call it, virtual care allows practitioners to interact with patients at a distance in real time — such as over the phone, by live video chat, or through instant messaging.
It could include a traditional doctor’s appointment or a consultation with a nutritionist. If you have heart failure, it could be having a scale in your home that lets a cardiologist digitally keep tabs on your weight. Or for someone who has diabetes, a primary care provider could keep an eye on their blood sugar with a glucose monitor.
The virtual care trend was fueled by our society’s growing fascination with all things digital. But it was also inspired by our constant quest for ways to provide better, higher-quality health care at a lower cost.
A Brief History of Virtual Care
Over the past decade or so — even before the COVID-19 pandemic — many innovative thinkers in the health care industry began wondering how to enable long-distance care for all patients with all levels of illness.
For instance, Medicare patients who lived in rural areas sometimes used video conferencing to talk with a specialist in a large city who they could not see otherwise.
But in 2020, as coronavirus infections skyrocketed across the country and around the world, it became clear that bringing patients into health care settings posed a severe infection risk to the patients and health care staff. Virtual care was the obvious solution.
My First-Hand Experience with Virtual Care
I had two virtual care visits in the past year and was surprised how much I liked them. I was a little nervous at first, unsure about the technology, but it turned out to be much easier than I expected.
Of course, I was very relieved to stay in my home during the pandemic. I also didn’t have to spend any time getting ready, driving, or looking for parking. I didn’t even need to wait too long in the virtual “waiting room” after I checked in for my appointment.
But probably the best and most unexpected part was that I had more face-to-face, eye-to-eye contact with my doctor through the computer than I probably would have had in the exam room. Remember — when you’re at the doctor’s office, most providers now spend a lot of time looking at the computer and not at you. But with virtual care, you get their undivided attention!
Virtual care also makes it possible to have a health care consultation any day of the week, day or night. Most Independence Blue Cross members can speak with a U.S. board-certified and licensed doctor or behavioral health specialist 24/7 through MDLIVE®, an independent company.
But Is Virtual Care as Good as In-Person Care?
Despite my positive experiences, I still had reservations about the “care” part of virtual care.
We understand that caring doesn’t necessarily require physically being with a person. After all, I “care” whenever I send a gift, type an email, or call someone on the phone.
But can health care truly be provided that way? And if so, what types of virtual interactions are effective, and which ones aren’t?
In a virtual care visit, practitioners can listen to patients, ask them questions, and assess their overall appearance. And often that’s enough for a practitioner to form a diagnosis, suggest possible treatments, and call in a prescription if appropriate.
But all this assumes that a patient has the equipment, Internet connection, and technological know-how to engage in virtual care. I especially worry about this with seniors, many of whom lag behind younger people in technical literacy.
If you’re reading this article, most likely you have everything you need to experience virtual care. But there are many who are not so lucky. The growing trend toward virtual care is one more reason why everyone needs access to the technology that many of us have come to take for granted.
Also, you can’t conduct a thorough physical examination, do a CT scan, or perform a colonoscopy or other procedures virtually. Many health care interactions require direct physical contact and sophisticated, expensive medical equipment.
Still, virtual care shows a lot of promise. In many situations it can make high-quality medical advice easier, or even possible, for people to access. I am excited to see if virtual care can help us meet the triple aim of improving the care experience for patients and doctors, raising the quality of care, and decreasing the cost of care.