Virtual care options in conjunction with in-person provider visits offer a number of advantages for employers, patients, and providers. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it allowed patients and providers to continue treatments while still man- aging to stay at home and not risk exposure to the virus. Virtual health care is an equalizer that helps bridge the gap of distance, time, and affordability to patients in need of medical care.

Telemedicine is a cost-saving tool that can reduce emergency room visits. During the pandemic, as patients were under stay- at-home orders and avoided going out in public, telemedicine became critical in treating urgent, non-life-threatening conditions. Treatment in an emergency room for an urgent condition generally costs about 10 times more than treatment at an urgent care facility. The emergency room was saved for true emergencies, reducing the wait times for treatment and lowering costs for both patients and insurance plans. Even as the country has opened up again, patients recognized the efficiency of telemedicine as an alternative to visits to the ER, and emergency room usage has remained well below pre-pandemic levels.

An additional benefit of virtual care is the ease of access to care for patients. Employees don’t need to take as much time off work, waiting times in offices are reduced, parents don’t need to solicit childcare or miss as much work to take children to the doc- tor, and people with limited access to transportation or in rural areas can visit with their doctors virtually. Additionally, for patients who live in areas with a limited number of specialists, patients can use a virtual visit to seek treatment, reducing the wait time for accessing the specialist and increasing the likelihood of beginning treatments earlier.

The cost-saving benefits and increased access to care are benefits of telemedicine, but as technology has developed, some of the lesser-known benefits of virtual care make this an increasingly attractive option. One of these emerging technologies is the use of digital tools to monitor patient progress in their homes––thus getting patients out of the hospital sooner while still effectively managing care. Digital tools allow providers to more efficiently complete pre-check-ins and create more touch points between provider and patient.

Cigna said that “69% of consumers want the option to choose a virtual visit over an office visit even after the pandemic ends,” and “53% of large employers plan to implement more virtual care solutions in 2021.”

The expansion of virtual care is critical to the future of a health care system, but there are still challenges that need to be over- come. One challenge in particular is that virtual care doesn’t yet fully integrate with in-person care. Patients still have to direct their own care and then choose the option or methodology that best suits their needs and objectives. Some types of visits still need to be performed in person, but patients shouldn’t be the ones deciding how these services are delivered. Unfortunately, not all patients have access to the hardware and broadband connections that are needed to effectively use virtual care in place of in-person visits. Providers also need to make sure that their facilities have invested in the needed technology and training
to make virtual care a viable option for all patients. Even more importantly, the security of patients’ health data and the security of that data is a key concern. The health care industry will need to address these security concerns in order for the benefits of virtual care to be fully realized.

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