AcuteCare Telemedicine Blog

Rising Opportunities in Virtual Healthcare

While it may not be the .com bubble of the 90’s, telehealth and virtual healthcare initiatives are gaining popularity amidst investment communities across the globe. While some challenges still remain; individual state medical licensing reform, digital medical record keeping and some regional short-falls in technology infrastructure, a recent Wall Street Journal report on private equity firms investing in the health-care sector indicate increased investor interest in earlier stage opportunities. With the rising cost of healthcare, anticipated physician shortages and an increased demand for healthcare, virtual medical care is a way to solve the access and cost issues. Nirad Jain, a Bain partner and a co-author of Bain’s latest report on global health-care private equity, said “Health care is such an important part of the economy in the U.S. and globally, it impacts society in such a fundamental way that it is hard for a private equity firm of scale not to have some part of its portfolio in health care.” Private equity last year reached a three year high of $29.6 billion globally, nearly double the level recorded for 2013.

Telemedicine has been around for several decades but advances in digital infrastructure, software and the popularity of mobile devices by consumers is creating a tipping point for a budding virtual health industry. “Telemedicine is moving like lightning. We’re able to do so much more than before,” said Andrew Watson, Chief Medical Director of Telemedicine at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Researchers at Mercom Capital Group estimated a 300% increase in funding flowing toward established and startup virtual-visit firms in 2014, and StartUp Health, a New York-based accelerator, and Rock Health, a San Francisco-based accelerator and seed fund, have independently reported that funding for new digital health ventures in the United States doubled last year. Rock Health estimates that $4.1 billion of new capital was invested in digital health in 2014, up from less than $1 billion in 2011.

“As practitioners in the telemedicine space, we’ve seen many technology platforms and telehealth delivery models enter the marketplace,” comments Dr. James Kiely, Partner, AcuteCare Telemedicine LLC.  “More consumers are embracing the convenience and lower costs of virtual visits and readily seeking routine and minor healthcare services through their smart phones, laptops and pads instead of face-to-face encounters with their doctors. As a result, healthcare organizations are moving quickly to implement telehealth initiatives across specialties such as neurology, cardiology, psychiatry, and other specialty programs.”

Whether or not virtual medicine and telehealth initiatives become the Facebook and Twitter of this decade remains to be seen. As investment dollars continue to rise, the future of telemedicine looks promising.

Preparing for the New Reality of Telehealth

A little more than a decade ago, telestroke and teleneurology were words that where not even part of our language but today are synonymous with the delivery of remote life-saving treatment for stroke and other neurological maladies. Telemedicine has provided vast improvements in medical care for our nation’s troops and veterans who are deployed in remote areas across the country and around the world, and is now poised to expand to a much larger telehealth initiative which promises to bring virtual, routine medical care to the home, workplace and public facilities of millions of patients throughout the country. With this expansion, telehealth will not only change the method of delivery of healthcare but proposes to alter the dynamics of the traditional caregiver/patient relationship. Yesterday’s patients are today and tomorrows consumers.

A new study from consulting company Oliver Wyman titled “The Patient to Consumer Revolution,” is revealing how empowered-consumers and outside industry innovators are influencing important changes to a centuries-old healthcare delivery model. “Empowering the consumer is what’s toppled many markets,” says Tom Main, partner at Oliver Wyman and co-author of the report. Companies like Walgreen’s, CVS, Google and Apple are beginning to enter what was traditionally an industry driven market. These new influencers are consumer experienced and able to successfully initiate telemedical products and services to a more aware and influential consumer.

In order to adjust to the new reality of virtual care delivery; hospitals, physicians and healthcare professionals across the care giving spectrum will need to alter not only their hard technology skills but learn new methods of personal interaction with their patients. Practitioners accustomed to performing good bedside manners will need to add “laptop manners” to their set of skills.

Relating to patients in person requires a much different approach than interacting with them virtually. Randy Parker, CEO of MDLIVE, a Florida-based telehealth provider says, “There’s a whole comfort level and professionalism involved (in telehealth) that many doctors don’t get, there’s even a dress code, and a way you present yourself” in a video encounter.” The new skills are not yet taught in medical school and few practitioners have yet had the opportunity to develop and fine-tune them in practice.

Peter Antall, medical director of the Online Care Group, says “Online doctors face two unique challenges that they don’t encounter in the exam room. First, they should have a familiarization with the technology they’re using, in case the patient on the other end of the encounter isn’t tech-savvy and needs help. Second, they have to learn “how to evaluate patients without the ability to examine by touch. Developing these skills requires a physician to be open minded and willing to learn and grow.”

It could be safe to say that very few healthcare professionals envisioned the disruptive effects the arrival of the internet, social media, wearable devices and mobile technology would have on the delivery of healthcare in the 21st century.

A Shifting Attitude

Telemedicine’s role in the current healthcare environment has been blossoming over the course of the past few years, making progress towards the full realization of the field’s potential.  A certain percentage of healthcare professionals are already there; those who have seen telemedicine at work day in and day out already know that we are providing patients with excellent care, mitigating costs to the healthcare system, and saving lives. The challenge remains getting the rest of our industry and our patients up to speed.

Improving care standards and lowering health care costs are their own rewards, but also important is the evident change in the way people think about getting medical treatment. Telemedicine is significantly changing patient behavior. We have heard astonishing figures – flirting with near 100% satisfaction rates – when it comes to positive experiences for both hospital workers and patients.

Presumably, an estimated 20% of the roughly 140 million ER visits that hospitals bear each year are able to be treated virtually. That number jumps to around 70% when considering urgent care centers and primary care physicians. The aforementioned shift in attitude about how to best access care in emergencies and non-emergencies is crucial to opening the door for telemedicine to alleviate much of the burdens these unnecessary visits place on the system. Reducing the stress on physical and financial resources also means better care across the board when patients do come to the hospital.

The speed, efficiency, and improved coordination of care are all great assets for a society battling with the challenges of an inefficient traditional healthcare system. The good news is that the many advantages of telemedicine for payers, providers, and patients are truly beginning to take root with the public, and driving behavior that will lead to even better results down the road.