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Delivering the Right Approach for Virtual Primary Care: 3 Key Insights

The key is having a holistic approach that identifies the top two or three critical issues and tailors the primary care solution to address those needs.

Two out of three employers plan to expand their virtual care offerings beyond urgent care in 2024, with areas like virtual primary care drawing interest, according to a Mercer survey. It’s a sign that employers see value in engaging patients digitally to drive better health outcomes.

But a virtual primary care approach isn’t as simple as mirroring an in-person visit online. Hospitals and health systems may be surprised to see how it can lead to referral patterns and changes in healthcare consumption.

Taking a closer look

Virtual primary care is steadily gaining traction. Last year, 40% of employers planned to implement a virtual primary care model. On the consumer side, while familiarity with virtual primary care is mixed, 94% of those who have used it said they’re satisfied with the experience, and 79% said it helped them take charge of their health. 

Services included under a virtual primary care umbrella go beyond annual checkups, prescription management and episodic sick care. They can also include longitudinal care for chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes and hypertension, comprehensive laboratory and diagnostic test management, behavioral health care and support for healthy lifestyle changes. Some employers are also exploring virtual specialty care for concerns such as metabolic syndrome, musculoskeletal, dermatology and mental health conditions.

A robust virtual primary care strategy should include elements to operationalize quality and drive outcomes while still meeting the needs of consumers, health plans and health systems. Organizations must invest intentionally in patient engagement. After all, the days of “If you build it, they will come” stopped with the end of large-scale pandemic quarantines.  

Patients understand the convenience of seeing a physician from their home or office, but trust between the doctor and the patient is the foundation of effective primary care. Achieving outcomes takes pairing convenience with efforts to reach populations challenged by primary care access and programs designed to drive performance.

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The move toward hybrid care—part physical, part virtual—is no longer new to clinicians. But providers must consider how they’ll deliver virtual primary care services in addition to in-person offerings without putting unnecessary pressure on resource-constrained staff. 

Thoughtful use of virtual care could include a program to capture disengaged patients or those unable to access brick-and-mortar care, or a plan to leverage mid-level clinicians in a primary care office for hospital follow-up, patient education visits and more. 

The key is having a holistic approach that identifies the top two or three critical issues and tailors the primary care solution to address those needs.

Designing a future-forward virtual primary care model

It takes a vision for digital excellence to establish a virtual primary care model that resonates with consumers, clinicians, health plans and employers. Here are three key considerations.

  1. Determine how you’ll distinguish your virtual primary care model. For instance, as employers beef up their networks of virtual care providers, how will your organization tighten referral processes to ensure seamless transitions for patients and collaboration around those next steps in care? How will you ensure your virtual primary care model provides the same access, convenience, and value as retail disruptors entering this space—and how will you differentiate your offerings from those of well-capitalized competitors? These questions must be addressed for virtual primary care to take hold in ways that benefit the organization and consumers.
  2. Assess opportunities for closing gaps in care. A robust virtual primary care model should go beyond replicating traditional in-office services toward offerings that meet emerging needs and interests. Consider the options consumers and employers in your market would like to see on a virtual primary care menu. Identify existing and emerging health risks in the populations you serve and ways that a digital approach to primary care could help close gaps in care while boosting performance with value-based payment models. Explore digital complements to traditional services that could improve satisfaction and revenue while promoting better health outcomes.
  3. Seek digital care expertise. About half of providers advancing their virtual care strategy rely on vendors outside or within health plans to help determine the right moves for digital success. Ask your vendor what steps leaders in this space are taking to address care pain points and satisfaction. Talk with them about how they plan to expand virtual care services and their anticipated timeline for rollout. With this information in hand, providers can more effectively determine short-term and long-term tactics for creating the types of care consumers crave.

By going beyond a standard set of offerings to customize virtual primary care to the needs of your community, employers and health plans, health systems can more effectively drive virtual primary care value and establish stronger consumer connections.

Photo: elenabs, Getty Images

Cynthia Horner, MD, FAAFP, is chief medical officer of Amwell. She’s completed 25,000 virtual visits in her career and leads thousands of clinicians delivering virtual care on Amwell’s worldwide platform. Horner joined Amwell Medical Group in 2016 as a physician, before being named medical director and then AMG’s head of general medicine and quality. Prior to Amwell, Horner practiced family medicine for 25 years. She also spent more than a decade as a board member for Helping Children Worldwide, where she counseled the non-profit on health-related programming for children and residents of Sierra Leone in West Africa.

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