As I’ve written about a few times over this past year, COVID has sped up payers’ and providers’ digital transformation strategies, adding a dimension of urgency and necessity. The extended nature of the COVID crisis has pushed healthcare organizations into the same model that verticals—retail, financial—have adapted over the last several years: a digital, consumer-driven approach. While the pressures on healthcare organizations to create an accessible digital face have been present for years, COVID has accelerated this market direction. What was once a several-step roadmap with incremental investments is now an immediate priority to ensure patients can access various types of care in a more on-demand fashion.
Vendors—especially non-traditional and digital health vendors—are seizing this moment. They may have been considered innovators and thought leaders for some time, but now the business case for such services is clear across all types of healthcare purchasers. As multiple sectors suffer the financial impacts of COVID, healthcare investment continues to flow for companies offering patients a simultaneous or complementary digital option alongside in-person care.
Telehealth is a key example of the rapid investments healthcare organizations have made in digital care. According to a report about utilization of telehealth for primary care in fee-for-service Medicare, “in April, nearly half (43.5%) of Medicare primary care visits were provided through telehealth compared with less than one percent (0.1%) in February”.
Perhaps the most-discussed deal of the last few months in this arena is the merger of Livongo, a virtual disease management vendor, and Teladoc, a virtual health vendor. With Livongo, Teladoc can now move rapidly towards a complete solution for remote patient management across several chronic condition states, as well as across mental health (which is an area of industry focus given the strains of COVID-19). Telehealth capabilities are clearly valuable on their own, but there is growing recognition that complete digital answers involve combining virtual visits with patient-centric, easy-to-access disease and condition management solutions.
Now that telehealth visits are falling from the pandemic high, the next challenge will be providing two parallel tracks based on patient preference: in-person and virtual. Between visits, patients need to have more options for easily tracking and managing their conditions from home.
COVID has also increased the conversation around in-person care access, which means a push for community health options. Patient preference has led retail leader Walmart to apply its all-in-one approach—think in-person shopping, grocery, pharmacy and online retail—to health clinics.
Walmart announced in September its plans to have 22 clinics operating by the end of 2021, with preventive, chronic condition, urgent care and more services under one roof. This will challenge primary care providers, urgent care centers and health plans not only from a price transparency (Walmart is using a flat fee model) and convenience perspective, but likely from a technology perspective as well; as we know from its retail, pharmacy and grocery approach, Walmart has extensive experience in providing dual in-person and online journeys. In fact, Walmart recently provided a three-day, live-streamed event centered on nutrition, heart and mental health, a good example of the virtual and consumer-centric approach it has long used as a larger company strategy. And in partnering with Oak Street Health to deliver services at some clinics, count on a patient-centric, technology-first primary care model as Walmart further evolves its physical Walmart Health locations.
Virtual and Physical Locations
No discussion of the pressures and opportunities around consumer health in the era of COVID is complete without referencing Amazon’s strategy; vendors with physical retail locations like Walmart are quickly finding ways to challenge Amazon by offering healthcare consumers a balance of in-person and remote options. Not to be left out, Amazon announced in July that, with Crossover Health, it would open 30 health centers for “warehouse workers and their families across the country.” COVID has increased the need for employees who can’t work remotely to have easy access to testing and other healthcare services.
Further, given that data is king in today’s healthcare environment, we can’t forget Amazon’s recent Halo wearable release in discussions of digital options for consumer health, with big names like John Hancock already signing on to use Halo with customers (pun intended.) It’s worth noting that COVID has not only led to a push for in-person and virtual options when it comes to physician visits; announcements like Halo and Walmart’s livestream event show there’s a clear opportunity to engage patients in taking control of their own individual health. This is particularly true in regards to chronic condition management. COVID further highlighted a gap in the market around personal health “ownership,” with certain appointments and care management options temporarily unavailable.
If market activity is any indicator—with virtual health and retail health vendors as our guide-- my guess is that patient options are here to stay. As has happened in other industries, healthcare is being forced to quickly adopt the consumer-centric models we’ve long talked about…but only early adopters have moved forward on, until now. Furthermore, now that we understand the long-term nature of COVID-19, options that include in-person or remote care to suit patient preferences will accommodate regional case spikes while ensuring providers and healthcare organizations have a route to revenue and patients have a route to uninterrupted care.