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March 21, 2022

How Do We Fill The Data Gap In Virtual Care?

By David Stein

We can all agree that remote work is here to stay. But what about remote health care?

Telehealth use skyrocketed in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic when many health providers were forced to deliver services remotely. Although telehealth visits have dropped from their peak in 2020, they remain elevated even as many patients return to in-person care, according to the results of an analysis by Epic Research and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Survey results show that patients and providers like the benefits of telehealth, such as convenience. You don’t have to sit in a waiting room when you’re sick, and you can see your doctor from the comfort of your own bed or sofa for a routine appointment.

Telehealth leapfrogged a lot of barriers during the pandemic, regulatory and otherwise, to deliver care to people in their homes. But there’s work to be done to make these visits more personalized and actionable.

The Need For Data

As the Epic/Kaiser study results pointed out, questions remain about the quality and outcomes of virtual care and whether it will reduce overall health care spending. To address these issues, we have to bring together the best of digital health and diagnostic innovation. A big barrier for virtual health, especially for standalone telehealth companies, is data—the critical health information that allows providers to correctly diagnose certain diseases and conditions and guide patients to better health. A doctor or nurse can’t tell if someone is healthy just by looking at them on a screen.

In a virtual environment, data becomes even more important because of the inability to do a physical exam. The proliferation of remote patient monitoring tools and wearable devices that measure vitals will help reduce the information gap in telehealth. But this is only a part of the personal health data that's needed.

The Challenge We Face

To fulfill the promise of virtual care, telehealth can’t compromise on diagnostic information. Providers need to have the most current and highest-quality information about patients. And the highest-quality data about our biology comes from our blood.

Blood tests are goldmines of health information. Human blood contains hundreds of biomarkers—the molecular signs of health—that not only can identify any underlying or developing health problems but also can help people make more informed decisions about diet, lifestyle and fitness choices. Blood tests are the cornerstone of routine and preventive care services, as about 70% of medical decisions depend on lab tests for diagnosis or treatment.

The challenge is how to get that data into the hands of a telehealth provider without having to schedule additional lab visits and follow-up appointments to discuss the test results. One solution is to give people more direct access to medically accurate blood tests in the most efficient and least time-consuming way possible. We must bring innovation to diagnostic blood testing, which hasn’t changed much in 70 years.

Paving The Way For Hybrid Care

We’ve all seen what happens when we don’t have access to care. We just went through a crash course during the Covid-19 pandemic and the outcomes weren’t good. According to the results of a World Health Organization survey released in June 2020, there was a 53% service disruption for hypertension treatment, 49% disruption for the treatment of diabetes and related complications, 42% disruption for cancer treatment and 31% disruption for cardiovascular emergencies.

In addition to telehealth, people also shifted to another care setting during the pandemic: Millions of people got tested and immunized at retail pharmacies. Why? Convenience is a big reason. There are more than 27,000 pharmacies in the U.S., and most Americans live within five miles of one. Consumers want health care that's convenient and easily accessible, just like ordering transportation on Uber or paying friends on Venmo.

Moving forward, we need a hybrid of in-person, virtual and at-home care, much like employers are adopting hybrid work schedules that incorporate a mix of in-office and remote work to give employees flexibility. A hybrid approach to care delivery will succeed if virtual care providers find the right partnerships to collect health data and make their platforms interoperable with other health organizations.

The Missing Link

The prevalence and cost of chronic diseases are growing in the U.S., in part because we’re getting information too little, too late. Problems get solved when we have the right information at the right time.

The growth of virtual care will continue if it becomes a viable option for primary care, not just sick care, and helps improve the treatment of complex conditions. High-quality data is the missing link between the virtual and physical worlds.