As another year shaken by the lingering COVID-19 pandemic ends, stakeholders are still exploring how virtual care trends accelerated in 2020 will affect the healthcare industry long term.
Though telehealth use spiked out of necessity during the early months and remains higher than pre-pandemic, utilization has slowed over the past two years. Meanwhile, big retail companies and pharmacies are offering more care options to patients.
Sanjula Jain, senior vice president of market strategy and chief research officer at Trilliant Health, sat down with MobiHealthNews to discuss the future of virtual care, how big retail entrants will affect the industry, and the importance of care coordination between traditional health systems and emerging retail players.
MobiHealthNews: What are some of your big takeaways from 2022 when you’re thinking about telehealth, digital health and other tech-enabled care?
Sanjula Jain: A big thing that I’m thinking a lot about is that patients aren’t coming back to care, despite all the investments in more supply or access points, whether that be virtual care access points or new retail entrants or traditional urgent care.
We’ve just had this huge mismatch between supply and demand. We’re kind of post-vaccines, we have Americans returning to work to some extent. A lot of folks are going into an office a couple of days a week, folks are traveling, yet they’re not going back to see their doctors. We’ve tried to make care more convenient and more accessible. And some of these new supply points are lower cost, and yet they’re still not engaging.
I think there are many reasons for that. COVID scared away a lot of patients, and I think we’re starting to see signs of more distrust in the healthcare system. And then cost and affordability, with a lot of the price pressures and inflation and recession discussions. That’s going to continue to be a factor. There’s a lot of health consequences for when patients don’t actually engage in necessary healthcare.
MHN: What do you think is the future of virtual care when you’re looking at 2023 and beyond?
Jain: The market for virtual care is a commoditized market. So we’re seeing that generally it’s being used amongst a discrete subset of the population. And we have to think about, who are the individuals who like to use virtual care and what are they using it for?
Primarily, as a health economist, I think a lot about substitute goods. We are seeing that virtual care is really only a substitute good for behavioral health. It’s both a clinical and financial substitute, right? Clinically, having some distance between you and your provider in a behavioral health interaction is probably preferred when you’re talking about your feelings and being very vulnerable. And there’s no lab work or poking and prodding that actually needs to happen. So it’s a viable clinical alternative.
Financially, we’ve been talking a lot about payment parity. Because behavioral health interactions often don’t need imaging and lab work, you’re kind of making the same amount for an office visit that you are in a virtual care environment. For other use cases like primary care, we see that’s not actually the case. The patient goes in for a virtual care visit, and then what really ends up happening is the physician says, “I need you to come in to get some imaging done or get some lab work done.”
The payment parity, despite the policy incentives to increase telehealth payment rates, it’s not true parity. And so that’s why we don’t see the full substitute effect. When you boil the ocean down, you see that the market for telehealth continues to be pretty discrete and concentrated to a handful of consumers. That’s really where I think the future is, thinking about whether they will continue to use it. The data shows that, in the pandemic, we’ve seen this tapering. When Americans are given the option for in-person or virtual, they’re still preferring to go in-person with that exception of behavioral health.
So I think the market is going to have to be more realistic about the total addressable market size in terms of discrete number of users, the number of visits per user, and then invest accordingly. I think that’s a large part of why we’ve seen a lot of struggling amongst some digital health players, because I think they’ve overestimated the amount of utilization of virtual care modalities. But the number of discrete users just isn’t up to par with what individuals had estimated it to be.
MHN: Going back to those retail entrants, Amazon made a ton of news this year. Walgreens CVS, Walmart — they’re also boosting their care delivery operations. How do you think these moves will affect the healthcare industry overall?
Jain: It ultimately comes down to, who is your customer or your consumer or patient persona?
Who is Amazon actually going after? Who is their target patient population, and for what services? Amazon is really focusing on more low-acuity services, and health systems are particularly good at the higher acuity things like surgeries.
What Amazon and other new entrants mean is that they provide the consumer with more care options. But it also creates a need to coordinate care better and create these really strong referral relationships.
To go back to my earlier point about patients not coming back, of the patients we do see coming back, we’re seeing them really seek out care in these low-acuity, commoditized care settings. They’re going in for flu and strep, but they’re not getting their screenings. It’s going to be really important for groups like Amazon to coordinate with health systems to actually get patients to go follow up for those necessary services and figure out how to refer them out.
MHN: How do you think the growth of these retail players will affect patients?
Jain: I think it’s a bit of a toss up. For some patients, they’re going to view it as a better experience, because they can get what they want when they want it. But I think from a clinical perspective, it creates a lot of risks and challenges for the health of the patient. There really isn’t someone owning the care or steering the patient through their healthcare journey. Have you gotten this lab workup? Have you gotten this mammogram?
For some of these more retail players, it’s consumer-directed. You can walk into urgent care and you can go to a telehealth visit, and it’s really up to the consumer. But healthcare is complicated, and the average consumer may not have all the necessary information to go make those decisions.
I think that there’s a lot of positives to retail players in terms of catering to consumer preferences and providing care in a more convenient way. But for a lot of complex care, acute care — that every American is going to need at some point in their life — there is a little bit more fragmentation.
MHN: Do you think there’s an appetite among health systems to partner with Walgreens or CVS or Amazon and say, “If you see someone, send them to me when they need a cancer screening?”
Jain: Absolutely. So I actually just this week was with one of the health systems, talking to their leadership team. That’s very much a conversation that is happening in the boardrooms — what is the right partnership structure with some of these new entrants and primary care providers?
I think the challenge is, you could have those great partnerships. But ultimately, it’s the consumer and the patient that’s still having to make the decision. Are they going to follow up on those recommendations? Where are they going to go next? So I think it’s something that we’re going to have to spend more time thinking about as an industry, how to coordinate that care for that patient over time, but with more choice and options in the market.