As rising costs, physician shortages and patients’ demand for convenient services continue to strain today’s healthcare system, a telemedicine innovation promises to reduce that strain in real time, according to a new study from FIU Business.
The study looked at Virtual Care Centers (VCC), which provide patient-initiated, on-demand primary and urgent care services for common medical conditions and deliver medical care into patients’ homes via cell phone, computer, tablet or wearable device.
“It’s a modern-day house call,” said Cynthia LeRouge, associate professor of information systems and business analytics at FIU Business, who co-authored an article on the research, published in the November issue of the Journal of Medical Internet Research, and white paper for the Center of Health Organization Transformation. “The objective is to bridge the distance by using technology to seek medical care.”
Early adopters of VCCs told researchers that the most common conditions treated virtually include acute respiratory infection, urinary tract infection, influenza, cough, dermatitis, digestive ailments, ear pain, mental health conditions, and chronic disease management such as diabetes or hypertension.
VCCs can reduce emergency room visits for minor conditions. They can also cut back on long drives and extended waiting time for patients that go to urgent care centers in urban locations.
“VCCs will change the way consumers look at the first step for that backyard bite, stomach ailment or flu,” said LeRouge. “There is also home-based diagnostic testing to determine next steps once they have results; if the flu test is positive, the patient can decide what they want to do next.”
Academic researchers affiliated with the Center for Health Organization Transformation collected and analyzed data from telephone interviews with 29 VCC experts representing the healthcare system, primary care practice, insurance company and telemedicine vendor sectors. Participants hold roles in strategy or business development, implementation, marketing, administrative operations, and clinical operations.
The value proposition for an organization to launch consumer-driven virtual care offerings includes acquiring and retaining patients, reducing unnecessary service costs and controlling costs for self-insured organizations.
Virtual care generally costs less than $50 per visit compared to an average per-visit cost of $130 for urgent care or $740 for an emergency room visit for a similar low-severity condition.
“The cost isn’t prohibitive. You can buy a coverage package and take care of the costs yourself,” said LeRouge. “It’s less than or equal to the cost of an Uber if you don’t have a car.”
The convenience factor is also an important benefit.
Researchers found that across the interviewed sectors, women between the ages of 25-45 years with young children were among the most frequent VCC users. Organizations also identified busy professionals, college students, and older adults or retirees as emerging user groups.
While the use of VCCs is growing and patients are learning more about virtual medicine, developing the right marketing strategy is a challenge. Marketing budgets lack funding and executives at existing ventures often can’t identify the best media mix to get their message out.
“You don’t advertise for the sake of it. Organizations have to focus on consumer education, why virtual urgent care is important and really target the messaging,” said LeRouge. “Their strategy must be commercial marketing oriented and include different types outreach that they may not have done before.”
LeRouge conducted the study with Ryan Sterling, a doctoral student at the University of Washington. In March, they will present a workshop, designed to help healthcare organizations launch new VCC services, during the American College of Healthcare Executive 2020 Congress on Healthcare Leadership.