How telehealth can address inequities — and change the future of health care delivery

The lack of access to health care is often the biggest challenge that patients encounter when they are sick or seeking preventive care. Patients can face weeks of waiting to see a provider and insufficient time with that provider once they are finally seen. For many, access remains out of reach, particularly for those living in rural areas or under-resourced communities.

With virtual and digital capabilities becoming more convenient and widely adopted, consumers today have more options in how they access their care. The past year has seen people become increasingly comfortable with virtual care and, according to our recent Health Care Insights Study, 59% of consumers feel it is important to their health that they have access to virtual and telehealth services. This greater acceptance of virtual care, combined with the proliferation of telehealth options in the past few years, offers a promising solution to closing gaps in health care inequities and helping shape a better care delivery model for all.

The role of virtual care in addressing health inequities

The boom in the use of virtual care during the pandemic showcases how telehealth plays a critical role in increasing access to equitable care solutions. Our recent data shows that compared to other health care options, respondents somewhat or strongly agree that telehealth appointments are quicker to provide care (77%), more convenient (76%), and easier to schedule appointments (75%). One aspect of virtual care’s ability to address health disparities is the connectivity and convenience these digital tools provide. Patients can make appointments quickly and access providers between visits using digital touchpoints. For patients with limited time or who lack geographic access to in-person services, telehealth channels can help them connect to providers. This ease of access has already created meaningful improvements for many consumers, helping marginalized communities access health services and strengthening their trust in the health care system to be responsive to their needs. Providing consumers with digital tools that give them more agency over their care journey can often help reduce inequities and barriers to care that go unseen.

Patients may also be able to access a more inclusive care experience from the materials available online in telehealth. Accessible materials in multiple languages and formats of online platforms will allow for interpretation and translation services to be built in. These materials can be crucial in increasing health care literacy for different populations and helping patients feel seen and understood by their providers.

The abundance of data generated through telehealth services will also be a core component of how we address inequities. Virtual care opens new avenues for data accumulated over time, helping providers to think more about the patient’s long-term health in addition to their immediate needs. Population data, such as data on race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, can assist providers in recognizing the differentiated needs of their patients and help them close disparities in outcomes.  

Virtual care alone will not be enough — an omnichannel care model is needed

As health care leaders, we cannot simply think of virtual care as either an add-on service, or as sufficient on its own. The value of telehealth is maximized when it is one component of a diverse, omnichannel care model that empowers consumers to access care in the way that best suits them, whether it is virtual, in-person, at-home or a combination of these options. This care model not only gives consumers options for accessing care but can also leverage a care team approach and an interoperable Electronic Health Record (EHR) to provide a more connected experience across sites of care.

Like others in the industry, CVS Health has introduced innovative primary care services, including Virtual Primary Care™, a new virtual care offering available to Aetna® commercial members nationwide enrolled in eligible health plans, which is an excellent example of how we can provide a more accessible, easy-to-navigate and connected health care experience.

Telehealth and the changing landscape of care delivery

Any new technology is only as good as how it is used. With the advent of telehealth services, we must steer the use of these tools toward an omnichannel model that focuses on integrating physical, virtual and in-home care, coordinating physician-led care teams across disciplines, and providing patients with access to better manage their own and their loved one’s health.  As you can see, the next level of telehealth services will bring these access points more into everyday care to make care more convenient and accessible to all communities.

This positive impact will be felt by consumers if industry leaders can successfully use telehealth to expand services into areas with underserved demand. One early example is in mental health, where the growth of telehealth has made a huge impact and will continue to do so. According to Mental Health America, 56% of adults with a mental illness receive no treatment. Telehealth allows patients to have mental health appointments in the comfort of their homes during hours that work best for them. According to our data, 71% of respondents think a virtual visit for mental health services would be more convenient for them. At CVS Health, we’ve delivered nearly 30 million virtual health visits since 2020 and have seen the effects of expanded access to these services.

When I think about the question of what’s next, I am confident we will see more connected omnichannel experiences and more frequent health care interactions to create opportunities to engage people in their health needs. Remote patient monitoring devices, AI-driven nudges, and post-acute care at home are all becoming more prevalent in health care. In the future, I hope these various touchpoints can address more diseases, both common and complex, to improve the way we treat our patients. I am proud to work for an organization like CVS Health that sees the transformative nature of this new model of care and is leading the way in its implementation. For industry leaders to succeed, they will need to harness this new model, too.

Creagh Milford DO, MPH, SVP, Retail Health, CVS Health

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