How Virtual Care Can Close Healthcare Disparities
Advances in virtual technology and changing patient preferences show promise for increasing care access and present an opportunity for budding healthcare entrepreneurs.
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It's no secret that healthcare access is unevenly distributed — a problem compounded both by location (rural areas being notoriously underserved) and its high cost. This dilemma is compounded by the fact that those working at jobs that don't include health insurance may not be able to afford adequate service, and that visits to specialists and prescription medications are often so expensive that, even with coverage, patients may not be able to afford the co-pays on top of premiums they already pay.
When a health clinic closes in an underserviced area of a city, it can leave thousands without a trusted physician, and when a hospital closes in a rural community (which has been happening with worrying frequency in recent years), it's virtually inevitable that even greater numbers will have to travel further to get care. Both make it more likely that people will skip routine examinations and/or delay treatment for health issues.
Delivering care anywhere, anytime
Telemedicine has long been heralded as one solution. With virtual care, patients can consult professionals via phone, video, email and text, eliminating the need for some appointments that might otherwise be hours away. It does not and cannot broadly replace in-person visits, but a virtual consultation can help a doctor or physician's assistant perform an assessment to determine whether or not an issue needs further examination. Dealing with a problem could be as easy as suggesting a change in behavior, or prescribing a medication (which can also be done virtually). Virtual care can also be used effectively in conjunction with home health monitoring. For instance, a patient with a heart problem can use special equipment at home and be in regular contact with a doctor, who will examine data remotely to ensure everything is fine.
This in-office/telemedicine hybrid approach is a win-win for patients and providers, providing more efficient and timely care — and those using these services have consistently reported that they like the idea of having more control over their options. This presents a significant opportunity for entrepreneurs to create businesses that provide high-quality care in new, unexpected ways.
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Many working people contend problems beyond geography, too, such as lack of paid sick days, odd work hours and unpredictable schedules — all of which make getting to the doctor more difficult. Virtual care can help here, too; not having to account for travel time means being able to schedule a call during a lunch break, for instance. And if a patient is open to seeing any doctor, some telehealth apps will allow immediate access, day or night.
Virtual care tends to be less expensive than in-person alternatives, as such visits do not necessarily require the involvement of additional staff members. Some insurance carriers even offer telemedicine visits or 24-hour nurse lines as free benefits with plans, a good way of avoiding often hefty co-pays. For those who have a high-deductible plan or who don't carry health insurance, there are now telemedicine services that are essentially virtual versions of an urgent care clinic, wherein people are informed upfront of the fee they will pay for an online consultation, so no big surprise bills later. Through a company like Sesame, it's possible to pay as little as $26 for a 15-minute appointment with a nurse practitioner.
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The business of closing disparities and creating efficiencies
The growing popularity of virtual care has created more entrepreneurial opportunities — from user-friendly telehealth apps that connect people with 24/7 providers to convenient mail-order and online prescription services — and cloud-based platforms that enable secure sharing of medical information, imaging and communication between patients and care providers are its technological backbone. Effective businesses in the space are mindful that virtual care is not an all-or-nothing proposition; when it comes to comprehensive wellness, in-person visits will always be necessary. To achieve that, many startups are consciously combining virtual care with traditional practices in order to create a more cost-effective structure. For example, Carbon Health combines smart technology and modern patient-centered offices that allow patients to make virtual or in-person appointments for physical and mental health (either same-day or next-day), and provides a straightforward price list for those without insurance.