Coming out of the pandemic, consumers are more varied in how they want their health care. Here’s how the industry can deliver.
First came the rise of telemedicine. Driven by safety concerns during the pandemic, about half of all patients had some form of virtual visit with their providers in 2020. Medicare, which had less than a million telehealth visits in 2019, saw 52.7 million virtual visits the next year, as federal regulations were relaxed.1
Then the tide of telehealth ebbed. This year, only about 11 percent2 of provider visits have been virtual, as in-person options returned. This lower number still represents a significant jump from the 1 percent of virtual visits in 2019 and signals a steadily rising normalization of digital health delivery. As a result, dual channels—in-person and virtual care—are becoming standard at every point in the patient journey.
Health care, then, is faced with twin challenges: integrate virtual care into the mainstream, and at the same time, serve audiences in more traditional ways they might want to receive care. “Consumers have more and more of a choice nowadays, and they are voting with their feet and their fingertips,” says practicing physician Creagh Milford, DO, MPH, and Senior Vice President of Retail Health at CVS Health®. “To serve them well means serving them in the way that best fits their lifestyle.”
Both channels—in-person care and virtual care— come with pros and cons. The average wait time for a new patient in-person appointment with a provider, for instance, reached 26 days in 2023,3, an all-time high. Virtual care, while more convenient, can pose technical barriers for some and many patients (and providers) are still uncertain what to expect. In many ways, consumers are evenly split. About two-fifths of consumers said that in-person visits are still important to them, while a similar number find virtual visits more convenient, according to the 2022 Health Care Insights Study from CVS Health.
While both methods are critical for reaching patients, large sections of the health care industry aren’t yet equipped to handle both virtual and in-person care. A recent McKinsey survey found just 41 percent of physicians believed their practice had the technology to deliver virtual care seamlessly4. A separate 2022 report found that most providers struggle to find the right mix between office and virtual visits.5
Ideally, consumers soon won’t have to choose one modality over the other. The goal is to marry digital and in-person services in a way other sectors have already done. “People have become accustomed to interacting digitally with other industries, such as banking, with the option of sometimes going into the store,” Milford says. “Health care can move in the same, consumer-centered direction. And by doing so, I believe we can shift from the episodic care that exists today to something that is more proactive and creates deeper relationships.”
The case of MinuteClinic®
MinuteClinic, retail health clinics in CVS Pharmacy stores, began piloting its virtual care services in 2015. A sharp increase in telehealth visits since the pandemic have brought critical lessons about how and where virtual care works for the consumer, according to David Fairchild, MD, MPH, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of MinuteClinic.
“We’ve confirmed that virtual care works — that there are a good number of things a clinician can diagnose and treat safely through a virtual visit,” Fairchild says. Research supports the notion that respiratory disorders, skin conditions, mental health services and other common concerns can be managed virtually. But the experience needs fine-tuning. “At first, one provider was handling both in-person and virtual calls,” says Fairchild. “That was challenging, in part because toggling between in-person and virtual visits during one clinical session was inefficient for providers.”
Lessons from the first wave of virtual care helped evolve the experience on both sides of the screen, MinuteClinic invested in expanding services, which now includes virtual mental health services in some states. There were also infrastructure improvements to make it easier for patients to request on-demand virtual appointments and access their personal health information online.
To Fairchild’s point, the clinics now also have designated providers who cover virtual visits exclusively. That way, in-clinic providers don’t have to hop back and forth between in-person and virtual appointments. “Sometimes simple changes can make all the difference,” says Fairchild. Consumer responses have been positive, and adoption continues to grow: “If we’ve learned nothing else from the pandemic and how people have reacted, it’s that we’ve got to make our services convenient and meet people where they are.”