Patients are not the only ones insisting on better and more seamless interactions with their providers. Healthcare organization also want to improve the patient experience, and many are hoping to achieve that outcome through digital transformation.

Though it may be a challenging journey for healthcare systems that have long relied on traditional fee-for-service models, the experiences from digital-first companies offer actionable lessons in interoperability, collaborative team approaches and value-based care. 

“I think one of the most frustrating parts of healthcare as a patient is when I want to see a doctor and I have to re-explain and re-enter everything, every single time,” says Sam Holliday, CEO of virtual-first gastrointestinal specialty care provider Oshi Health.

To promote a consistent and continuous care experience, interoperability is key. “We want data to move around freely and support everybody, with every provider having the right data at the right time,” Holliday says.

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Stronger Relationships and Steady Care through Telehealth

The traditional healthcare journey typically began with a patient’s in-person visit to a primary care provider, who would then refer that patient to a specialist as needed. However, telehealth use, especially during the pandemic, has started to adjust that journey.

“There used to be this notion that telehealth is transactional; it’s for things like urgent care, where I don’t need to know who the person on the other end of the call or the screen is, I just have a specific, short need to get help,” Holliday says. “I think the biggest shift that’s occurred is people realize you can actually do relationship-based ongoing care through telehealth. That shift now has made consumers more comfortable with telehealth, providers are more comfortable, and it’s created a whole set of companies that are redesigning their care, saying it should all be telehealth first for the things where that’s appropriate.”

Virtual-first healthcare companies are marketing directly to consumers and offering a more personalized, digitally enabled start to the care journey. Patients can hop on a telehealth visit in the middle of a workday with ease instead of driving two hours to see a specialist.

DISCOVER: Learn how healthcare organizations can benefit from a virtual care workshop.

A Virtual-First Approach to Healthcare Promotes Teamwork

A virtual-first approach to healthcare also promotes coordinated, team-based strategies. Companies such as Virta and Onduo use remote patient monitoring tools, a digital platform and a care team to manage chronic illnesses such as diabetes.

A digitally connected care team supports a more holistic approach to health, Holliday adds. Instead of a specialist, a dietitian and a psychologist siloed off for a single patient’s treatment, a virtual-first approach fosters collaboration to provide a seamless patient experience.

“We build a team-based model where our providers are regularly communicating with each other about individual members and teaming to say, what’s going on? How do we get these things resolved using each of us in our specialized capabilities?” says Holliday. Oshi Health’s integrated care team includes a gastroenterologist, a registered dietitian and a health coach.

Virtual mental health platform Ginger, which merged with Headspace earlier this year to form Headspace Health, has touted its use of data and analytics to support its providers.

“Traditionally in mental healthcare, most providers operate alone, with subpar technology to manage their practices and measure the effectiveness of their care,” says Dana Udall, chief clinical officer at Headspace Health. “Our providers join a collaborative team backed by technology that allows them to do more of what they love and do best, and to scale high-quality care. The backbone of our system leverages artificial intelligence and machine learning to enable collaborative, measurement-based mental healthcare.”

Digital-first strategies help patients start their care journeys earlier, focusing on prevention rather than reaction. Digital healthcare, after all, “is simply just ‘healthcare,’” Udall says.

And the interest is there. The pandemic has driven demand for virtual mental healthcare services, Udall says, adding that just last month, the company saw a massive increase in the need for behavioral health coaching support, therapy and psychiatry, compared with the period before March 2020.

“In addition, we’re seeing an increased recognition that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental healthcare. Virtual care is increasing access to care and scaling services, but we need to ensure that care is appropriate for people of all backgrounds and demographic groups,” Udall says, noting the need for specific, culturally responsive care.

The Rise of Virtual-First Health Plans

In October, UnitedHealthcare announced the launch of virtual-first health plan NavigateNOW, which will include round-the-clock access to a care team for primary, urgent and behavioral healthcare services. Other payers, including Anthem and Cigna, are also moving toward a digital-first approach to health plans, and employers are looking to digital health solutions as benefits.

“I think these virtual-first health plans are going to be the most interesting thing to watch in healthcare next year,” Holliday says. “Do consumers go to them, test them out? What do they show in terms of the experience for a consumer and the health outcomes they can generate? And do they actually end up lowering costs?”

LEARN MORE: Discover 8 technologies improving patient-clinician interactions.

Holliday says he recognizes the challenges of moving from a fee-for-service model to a value-based care approach. Hybrid healthcare delivery is not something that can be tacked on over a traditional care delivery model, he adds; it needs to be cultivated from the ground up.

“We’ve built from scratch a care model that’s built to deliver better outcomes at lower cost,” Holliday says. “I view part of our role as painting the picture that this is not just possible, it’s preferable. I’m going all in on a more value-based approach.”