Survey Says: Virtual Health Tops Priority List for Many Health Systems

Sg2, a Vizient company



Allison Heddon, Vice President

It is no surprise that virtual health continues to be a hot topic among our clientele and across the health care industry. The majority of hospitals and health systems have implemented some sort of virtual health program or expect to do so soon. But the path to a unified, system-level virtual health initiative, the return on investment (ROI) and the best way to track success remain anything but clear, varying considerably across markets.

Recognizing that national statistics on virtual health programs are in high demand, Sg2 recently polled both Sg2 clients and nonmember organizations to better understand the current virtual health landscape—what’s working, what’s not, and how virtual health fits into all types of organizations. Based on 82 respondents, results showed varied success with virtual health, yet many common goals and approaches rose to the top.

Survey says: Nearly half of respondents have moved past the pilot stage
Virtual health initiatives are increasingly being integrated into system-level strategic priorities and this trend is reflected in the survey results. A significant portion of organizations are dedicating staff and financial resources to implementing sustainable virtual health programs. For long-term success and viability, health systems must quickly move past the pilot stage and ensure that new initiatives are not siloed in only a few clinical specialties.

Survey says: Number one goal of virtual health is to increase access to care
It is not surprising that a large majority of respondents (85 percent) cited increasing access to care as the highest-priority goal for their virtual health programs. Access to adult and pediatric subspecialists and emergency care are top drivers of virtual health nationally. Other top goals included supporting population health management (50 percent) and improving quality outcomes (42 percent).* Collaboration with Sg2’s virtual health consulting team demonstrated alignment with these goals, with clients considering them both key drivers and pain points behind developing virtual health programs.

An organization with a mature virtual health program noted that they found virtual health’s “greatest value is provider-to-provider consultation extending specialty care within the region.”

*Percentages will not total 100%, since each respondent could choose up to three goals.

Survey says: Top three program areas influence chronic care management
The top three clinical specialties where virtual health is most utilized are neurology, behavioral health/mental health and cardiovascular services. Since these specialties often involve chronic care management with multiple visits and touchpoints, virtual care can ease this process, improving patient satisfaction and creating workforce efficiencies. Virtual health can also increase access to limited specialists in these areas, such as hospitalists, intensivists and pharmacists.

Survey says: More than half of respondents lack dedicated virtual health departments
Of respondents, 53 percent did not have a dedicated virtual health department. However, results from organizations with three or more years of experience with virtual health showed an opposite trend, with 61 percent reporting that they did have a dedicated department. This is a key component of securing internal buy-in and communication about virtual health endeavors. It also ensures that virtual services continue to be a visible priority across the organization. While it may be challenging, at first, to gain physician support and find the time to dedicate to this project, Sg2 finds that having a dedicated virtual health department or steering committee is one of the most crucial factors for determining a virtual health program’s long-term growth and financial success.

Survey says: Metrics to track success are still evolving
The number of virtual visits is the number one metric tracked. Not surprisingly, few organizations track direct revenue, given that a significant portion of programs across the country are not obtaining a positive ROI with virtual health.

Health care providers have traditionally prioritized their virtual health initiatives based on weighing the benefits, feasibility, costs and ROI. As a direct financial return is not typically expected with virtual health programs, especially for consumer-focused programs like virtual urgent care visits, using ROI as the only value to measure success is not sustainable.

Consider the following questions for your virtual health initiatives
Results from our survey illustrate the broad range of approaches to and levels of experience with virtual health today. Whether you are new to this space, are in the pilot stage or have a mature virtual health program, there are a few questions you should consider.

  • Identify your system-wide priorities—what pain points are you trying to address within your market? How can technology support your care delivery solutions?
  • Are your clinical staff, leadership teams and consumers ready to accept virtual health? How would your current infrastructure support or hinder a virtual health program rollout? For example, are all inpatient and ambulatory sites on the same electronic medical record?
  • What access points or service lines should you prioritize in rolling out virtual health? What is the proper timing of implementation, keeping in mind that not every virtual program can or should be rolled out at once?
  • How is your organization going to implement and scale the prioritized initiatives? A near- and long-term implementation plan should be set in place to ensure smooth execution. Remember to keep in mind any concurrent technical projects that may be going live simultaneously.
  • How are you going to determine the success of your virtual health program, knowing that relying on ROI may not be the best strategy? How will metrics vary by program type?

All of these questions are essential as you consider your next steps in virtual health. To learn more about how Sg2 can help, click here.

About the author and Sg2. As a key member of Sg2’s Center for Clinical Technology, Allison Heddon's work focuses on emerging medical technologies, specifically virtual health, and the impact of these innovations on care delivery. Sg2 analysts Kelly Chen and Tiwi Oye also contributed to this post. Sg2’s analytics-based health care expertise helps hospitals and health systems integrate, prioritize and drive growth and performance across the continuum of care.

Sources: Sg2 Virtual Health Survey, 2015; Sg2 Analysis, 2016.

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