Virtual primary care (VPC) is growing in popularity. With no better proving ground than the COVID-19 pandemic, patients and healthcare providers alike are realizing the power and potential of this form of care outside of quarantine.
It’s the digital equivalent of visiting a primary care practice in-person, just over the phone, or through video chat. VPC is a modern approach to care delivery that combines the convenience of telehealth technology with an emphasis on building and maintaining strong relationships between patients and their primary care providers (PCPs). The end goal is to maximize positive patient outcomes while overcoming the barriers and challenges of an in-person visit.
With some industry leaders saying that virtual primary care will disrupt the healthcare ecosystem as we know it, we wanted to see if there’s any merit to that claim, and what the pros and cons of a virtual primary care approach look like.
Will virtual primary care redefine the traditional model? Let’s find out.
Virtual primary care: the pros
Like telehealth, VPC was championed by physicians for years. It wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic, however, that its use skyrocketed.
Because healthcare providers use telehealth platforms to facilitate virtual primary care, we can track its growth by looking at the rise of telehealth encounters over the last few years.
Telehealth visits from 2016 – 2021
From the graph, we can see that telehealth adoption soared in 2020 with nearly 100 million visits, resulting in an 8,336% increase over the previous year.
Many of the reasons why patients and providers are using telehealth services are also applicable to virtual primary care. We explore these benefits in the first two parts of our blog series on how the pandemic changed the healthcare landscape, but a quick summary is below.
The benefits of using a VPC approach include:
Accessibility and convenience. Anyone with a smartphone or an Internet connection can use a telehealth platform.
Enhanced collaboration. By using remote patient monitoring devices and telehealth tools, doctors can quickly gather patient information and share it across the entire team.
Reduced avoidable readmissions. Using telehealth technology empowers providers to take a more proactive approach in care coordination after a patient is discharged from the hospital.
Helps bridge the care gap, allowing more people who don’t have a PCP to connect with one.
Alleviate burdens felt by the provider staffing shortage. Providers can use telehealth to be more efficient with daily tasks and spend more time with patients than with paperwork.
Continuity of care
Another major benefit of using a VPC approach is that it keeps the same doctor and care team involved throughout the patient’s care journey. Known as continuity of care, studies have shown that this can lead to increased patient satisfaction, greater adherence to medical advice, lower mortality rates and more.
Despite these benefits, the data indicates that the realities of this method may be mixed.
Virtual primary care: the cons
Industry studies and our own data show that patient preferences are more nuanced than previously believed.
Many of telehealth’s pitfalls are equally applicable to virtual primary care. These challenges include:
Digital exclusion. Many rural communities lack the infrastructure for high-speed Internet access. The requirement of a smartphone or computer can also be a cost-barrier to some patients.
Unsuitability for certain healthcare specialties. Certain conditions require more extensive examination or specific tools to properly diagnose patients that are beyond the capabilities of a telehealth platform.
Technical training and equipment. Restructuring IT staff responsibilities can be time-consuming and purchasing equipment can be expensive.
Keeping patient data private and secure with technology that may be unfamiliar to staff or not integrated into existing platforms.
Some patients just don’t want a primary care physician
Patient perspectives on healthcare are changing, and that means providers need to adapt their strategies to succeed. For some patients, a long-lasting relationship with a PCP just isn’t as valuable as it once was. This may be especially true among millennials, whose preferences for convenience, fast service and price transparency are causing them to seek alternatives outside the walls of the doctor’s office.
A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 45% of adults aged 18-29 have no PCP and don’t want one. Moreover, there's evidence that spending on primary care is dropping. Usage of urgent care facilities and at-home care programs may grow in response as expectations of healthcare and the traditional doctor’s visit changes.
Is virtual primary care just a passing trend within the healthcare ecosystem?
For now, healthcare providers will need to carefully consider how telehealth—and virtual primary care by extension—fit in with their strategy. While no one can predict the future, it’s probable that VPC will be one part of a larger, holistic care model that engages patients wherever is most convenient for them to begin the journey, and then call them into the office as needed.
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