The pandemic gave us more reasons, and more options, to see doctors online. In fact, in 34 percent of households in 2021, telehealth was the only option for seeing a provider. And much like the necessity of remote work proved its potential to employers, telemedicine took hold as a convenient, safe and effective approach to healthcare.
Today, there’s a new era of virtual care – virtual primary care. Sometimes called virtual-first or digital-first care, the movement shifts the concept of off-hours or urgent online visits to that of a virtual yet consistent care team that replaces the traditional in-office primary care relationship.
As a physician, I agree with the majority of my peers who expect virtual primary care to surpass in-person care within five years. Which means employers should start thinking about incorporating virtual primary care into their health plans starting now. Virtual primary care holds a lot of promise in terms of convenience, accessibility and cost savings – for employees as well as employers – but it’s certainly a shift in what people are used to.
I think it’s important to explain what it is, and what it isn’t, in comparison to traditional telemedicine.
To me, traditional telemedicine is basically episodic, remote online urgent care. Aside from the occasional online consult with a doctor you know, telemedicine has been a point solution that sits OUTSIDE the core health plan, distinct and disconnected from the patient’s primary care relationship.
Virtual primary care, on the other hand, shifts the long-term primary care relationship – including continuity and coordination of care and referrals – to a virtual realm. It’s the ongoing, trusted doctor-patient dynamic most patients are accustomed to, from the comfort and convenience of home (or office, or hotel room or… you get the point).
With this in mind, here’s why I see the boom of virtual primary care as an encouraging trend for both members and employer-sponsors:
1. Virtual primary care meets patients where they are.
Primary care leads to healthier outcomes. Period. An ongoing PCP relationship builds trust, allows issues to be spotted earlier, increases medication compliance and improves chronic disease management. Yet according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, one-fourth of all adults and nearly half of adults under 30 do not have a primary care doctor. And the stats are worse among minority groups.
Considering the reasons people are passing on PCPs, virtual options may provide an antidote:
- Flexible scheduling to fit work and family commitments
- No travel involved, decreasing absences and expenses while eliminating any barriers of distance
- Reduced wait times for visits– and no physical waiting room
- Fewer gaps in care, especially for managing chronic conditions
2. Virtual primary care can treat more than people think.
Certain situations will, of course, require hands-on, in-person care. But a virtual primary care visit can attend to a broad spectrum of services from preventive care and screenings to ongoing chronic care management; urgent care; skin evaluations; mental health care; prescriptions (with some limitations), and the list keeps growing. If needed, virtual primary care doctors can work with in-network specialists (who might be virtual or in-person) to guide members with complex needs to get the right diagnosis and treatment.
3. Virtual primary care embraces communication.
Effective primary care centers around the provider-patient conversation, not only for building trust but also for understanding history and symptoms. Virtual visits can offer a more relaxed, less rushed setting for discussion – and plenty of options for sharing information. One California “virtualist” describes using video, audio, text messaging and photos for 90 percent of care needs.
4. Virtual primary care reduces unnecessary ER and urgent care visits – and costs.
Without a PCP to call their own, patients may opt for an ER or urgent care trip simply for lack of options. A recent Cigna study showed that virtual care can reduce unnecessary ER and urgent care visits by 19 percent – while significantly lowering costs. With a virtual and accessible PCP, patients are directed to the right level of care when and where appropriate.
5. Virtual primary care doctors work with in-person providers, too.
If and when a patient needs an X-ray or CT scan, they can get it. Virtual primary care providers refer to trusted specialists or order labs and tests just as they would in-person. Plus, in-home options for screening, monitoring and blood tests, physical therapy and more are gaining popularity, too.
Because Centivo plans are built with primary care at their center, in 2021 we began offering a virtual primary care capability as well. In addition to the reasons above, it’s an appealing option for our members who have not yet selected a local provider. The following year, Centivo’s Virtual Primary Care practice was one of the first to receive Patient-Centered Medical Home (PCMH) Recognition by the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) – proof-positive that virtual care can be equivalent to best-in-class advanced primary care.
I’m encouraged by the new era of virtual care and the positive change possible for workers and employers alike. From my perspective, the evolution of this virtual patient-centric, accessible, value-based approach is an exciting and beneficial remedy for much of what is ailing the system.