Health care providers are planning for patient access to virtual care that outlasts the pandemic, according to a survey Optum released today. While most providers said they enjoy the convenience telehealth offers them and their patients, there is also room for improvement.
As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves across communities, many providers are weighing whether and how to continue offering virtual care. The vast majority of respondents (93%) will continue to use telehealth after the pandemic, according to the survey of 240 providers.
Patient access rises through telehealth
The U.S. is facing widespread shortages of mental health clinicians: According to the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation), more than 6,500 additional mental health clinicians are needed. Primary care physicians can use telehealth to help bridge this gap. Three-quarters of survey respondents are primary care physicians, and nearly one-third of all providers stated they had used virtual care to provide mental health support.
When asked what types of patient care they deliver via telehealth, providers answered:
- Conduct primary care visits (75%)
- Conduct chronic care visits (72%)
- Order prescription refills (64%)
- Conduct COVID-19 screenings (39%)
- Conduct urgent care visits (38%)
- Address mental health concerns (36%)
- Conduct follow-up after a procedure or surgery care (28%)
Clinicians share virtual channel preferences
Among various telehealth tools, real-time communication channels prevailed in usage: video visits at 88% and phone visits at 80%. Asynchronous channels lagged: secure messaging at 30%, email at 12%, and text messaging at 7%. Chatbots drew 3%.
When looking at how patients prefer to schedule virtual visits, providers still see a strong preference for traditional scheduling via phone calls (86%), followed by online (51%) and in person (26%).
Telehealth cited for convenience, frustrations
Providers feel ease of use dominates the many patient benefits of telehealth:
- Convenience (90%)
- Easier to find an appointment time (52%)
- Logging into the appointment at home (47%)
- Post-appointment follow-up (15%)
- Online scheduling (12%)
Looking inward, providers saw similar value for themselves in telehealth. Asked how they would describe telehealth, the majority of respondents (69%) used the word convenient. Another 28% described virtual care as frustrating.
Although these descriptors may seem contradictory, providers did shed some clarity on their thinking. The main reasons providers experienced frustration was the quality of care they can provide (58%), managing patient expectations for their virtual visit (55%), and technical details that come with navigating telehealth (50%).
Telehealth tech experience shows room for growth
The pandemic has exposed opportunities to improve the patient experience and the scale of virtual care offerings. For many providers, optimizing their telehealth technology may offer a good starting point.
Even with 64% of providers surveyed saying they are somewhat or extremely satisfied with their telehealth technology, they identified several areas of improvement for the patient and clinician experience.
Most health care organizations adopted virtual care as recently as the start of the pandemic, so the required technical knowledge still presents a high barrier to entry for patients and even some providers. The top two priorities for providers in improving telehealth, when seen together, call for bridging the digital divide. Providers saw the No. 1 priority as offering telehealth training to patients who are less digitally savvy. Ongoing telehealth training for clinicians and their staff ranked second.
"The innovations utilized over the past two years and the convenience they have brought to providers and patients should not be left behind," said Puneet Maheshwari, co-founder and CEO of DocASAP at Optum. "As we slowly come out of the pandemic, returning to operating the way we were pre-pandemic should not be the norm. Telehealth has proven to be a valuable and convenient asset for patients accessing care, so providers and technology vendors need to continue improving on the technology itself as well as the virtual care processes."
DocASAP, part of Optum, is a patient access and engagement platform for health systems, health plans, and physician groups. These technology services empower organizations to navigate patients to the optimal provider and care setting at the right time throughout their access journey, helping improve outcomes, reduce costs and create a better patient experience.
To learn more, visit Optum.com for a report on the provider telehealth use and experience survey.
Commissioned by Optum, the survey of provider telehealth use and experience was conducted using Qualtrics software between Oct. 25 - Nov. 2, 2021. Feedback was obtained from 240 health care providers of varying roles: 75% primary care, 18% specialty care, 4% urgent care, and 2% other. Qualtrics and all other Qualtrics product or service names are registered trademarks or trademarks of Qualtrics, Provo, Utah. https://www.qualtrics.com.
Optum is a leading information and technology-enabled health services business dedicated to helping make the health system work better for everyone. With more than 210,000 people worldwide, Optum delivers intelligent, integrated solutions that help to modernize the health system and improve overall population health. Optum is part of UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH). For more information, visit www.Optum.com.
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