Silvia Piai
Silvia Piai (Research Director, Health Insights)
Federico Mayr
Federico Mayr (Research Analyst, IDC Health Insights, Europe)

Virtual care is at a critical juncture in its development. The rapid rise of virtual care during the pandemic sparked discussions about its ongoing significance. While numerous studies have highlighted its advantages, the future of virtual care is now under scrutiny.

As the novelty effect fades, both healthcare professionals and patients are redefining their expectations and preferences, leading to valid questions about the path ahead for virtual care.

What is Virtual Care?

Definition in this space abounds, but from a general perspective, virtual care encompasses all the remote interactions between healthcare organizations and patients, enabled by digital tools to deliver health services, promote engagement and enhance health and well-being. It includes services and organizations focused on patient education and advice but also services that entail diagnosis, monitoring and treatment.

There is a broad spectrum of technologies enabling virtual care, covering connectivity, collaboration, clinical information systems, consumer technologies, MedTech, etc. These components enable communication, data exchange and analysis, transforming how healthcare is delivered and experienced.

 Main Benefits and Limitations of Virtual Care

The adoption of virtual care in European healthcare systems has triggered profound shifts and delivered benefits across multiple dimensions It has brought about notable improvements at the system level, as well as advancements within healthcare organizations. Virtual care has had a positive impact on patient outcomes and experiences, underscoring its significance in shaping the future of healthcare.

According to IDC’s December 2022 Consumer Pulse Survey, healthcare consumers reported comparable satisfaction levels with virtual visits as they did with traditional in-person appointments. When focusing on some macro-level benefits, virtual care has shown its pivotal role in healthcare by relieving ER pressure, freeing beds for patients with more critical needs, and improving operational efficiency.

For example, the English NHS recently surpassed its goal’s target of 10,000 virtual ward beds by September 2023. These beds cater to patients with conditions like COPD, heart failure, and frailty. Over 240,000 patients have been treated through virtual wards, with research suggesting comparable or faster recovery compared to traditional hospital care.

However, it is crucial for healthcare providers to acknowledge that virtual care is not without limitations and challenges, which must be carefully addressed. Without these considerations, healthcare organizations will struggle to realize the anticipated benefits, and, in some cases, they could even compromise care quality.

  • Transforming Essential Care – If We Connect the Dots: Virtual care offers convenience by allowing patients to access non-urgent medical services from home. It can alleviate strain on emergency rooms, address primary care shortages, and extend services to underserved areas. However, integration into patient records is essential for continuity of care. Technical obstacles, especially in underserved regions, require further investments in infrastructures, health information data integration and management.
  • Empowering Chronic Disease Management – If We Use the Right Tools: Virtual care positively impacts chronic disease management, but it requires appropriate engagement tools. Choosing ergonomic device design, automated real-time data collection, performance criteria (speed, accuracy, response times), and diverse functionalities (like medication reminders, predictive alerts) significantly impact the outcomes for virtual care. Striking a balance between virtual care benefits and the need for in-person assessments is vital. Understanding which aspects of disease management can be handled remotely, and which require in-person attention due to physical exams and specialized tests, is essential for comprehensive care.
  • Tackling Health Inequalities – If We Mind the Digital Gap: Virtual care aims to bridge healthcare access gaps, but the digital divide and limited digital literacy pose barriers. Health inequalities persist, with evidence of disparities in digital technology utilization. IDC research shows that the primary user demographic of virtual visits are young, urban, higher-income individuals, typically facing fewer access barriers. To tackle these disparities, virtual care solutions need to be intentionally designed to address specific barriers faced by different patient groups.

How to Future-Proof Virtual Care

Virtual care holds the potential to improve healthcare accessibility and delivery by providing care to individuals regardless of their location or the time of day. To fully harness this potential, it is crucial to thoughtfully address the challenges and shortcomings it currently faces and implement long-term strategies that facilitate transformative changes.

  • Assess Population Needs: Understand diverse patient requirements, including digital literacy and social determinants of health (SDoH). Embrace “hybrid care” models that offer both virtual and in-person options, catering to individual needs.
  • Choose Appropriate Technology: Select medical-grade remote patient monitoring devices and platforms that integrate seamlessly with healthcare professionals’ workflows. Ensure active patient engagement.
  • Establish a Virtual Care Ecosystem: Foster collaborations among healthcare authorities, provider organizations, and life science companies. Implement suitable reimbursement schemes to incentivize healthcare providers for round-the-clock virtual care availability.

At IDC we have just published a report “ IDC Innovators: Remote Patient Engagement and Virtual Care Solutions, 2023”  exploring how emerging technology vendors are supporting the evolution of  virtual care working with healthcare organizations and the broader health ecosystem.

Virtual care should not be seen just as a legacy of the pandemic-era; instead, it stands as a transformative force shaping the future of healthcare. By aligning with population needs, leveraging technology sensibly, and fostering collaboration in the healthcare ecosystem, virtual care can advance even further. Its role in delivering high-quality, accessible, and convenient healthcare services tailored to individuals worldwide will remain pivotal.

As we transitioned into a post-pandemic era, it’s crucial to fine-tune virtual care programs to fit population-specific needs and integrate them seamlessly into the broader healthcare ecosystem, solidifying their significance.

If you’re curious and want to dive deeper into this subject, consider reaching out to our IDC Health Insights team. Also be sure to check the latest research on virtual care from Nino Giguashvili, Federico Mayr and Silvia Piai

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