The pandemic disrupted many industries, but few experienced the level of change seen in healthcare. During the pandemic, the healthcare industry evolved from slowly adopting technology to implementing new technology strategies virtually overnight to continue patient care, most notably through telehealth. Moreover, during the pandemic, government deregulation helped drive a surge in virtual care, which was especially critical for patients with chronic conditions and at high risk if they were to contract COVID-19. In fact, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there was a 154% increase in telehealth visits during the last week of March 2020, when compared to the same period in 2019.
As vaccines have become available, practices have re-opened their doors, but many continue to offer telehealth appointments. As the pandemic has continued, telehealth visits have fluctuated with the number of new COVID-19 cases – an increase in virtual visits as numbers spike, and a decrease as numbers reduce – providing patients with expanded options for care, according to the CDC.
What lessons can this crisis adoption of telehealth teach us about spurring technology adoption more generally?
Understand the latest, shiniest technology isn’t always the best
Many new apps, platforms, and systems are released every day in the technology industry. However, launching “cool technology” is not enough to ensure adoption, even if it solves a clear problem.
When looking at the healthcare industry, telehealth is not a new technology – it’s been around since at least the 1950s – but we didn’t see large-scale adoption until 2020. This is because both care providers and patients have traditionally assumed that in-person care is superior to virtual care; reimbursement for virtual care has also historically been much lower, with significant restrictions on when and where it can be used for routine patient care. This has resulted in a situation where technical capabilities evolved (high-speed internet availability, mobile and desktop processor capabilities, etc.) but traditional clinicians did not adopt.
In 2020 we saw both barriers fall – at least temporarily. Given a choice between no access and virtual access, providers and patients chose the latter in droves, especially for visits that didn’t require hands-on care – mental health, some chronic care check-ins, etc. In the early days of the pandemic, government and commercial payers relaxed burdensome “site of care” restrictions and raised telehealth reimbursement rates to at or near parity with in-person care. For adoption to remain at current levels (or increase), financial incentives will have to remain aligned.
Address pain points beyond the immediate crisis
Telehealth has the potential to stay for the long haul because it addresses challenges that existed before the pandemic and will likely exist after as well. For example, according to industry data, telehealth appointments are more likely to take place after normal working hours or on the weekends compared to in-person appointments, and also more likely to be scheduled for the same day. This suggests that telehealth offers additional options to improve accessibility and convenience for patients.
As we look to the future, it will be critical that telehealth offerings continue to evolve beyond the crisis. Disconnected workflows and experiences may have been tolerated when there were no alternatives, but clinicians and patients increasingly expect virtual care tools to integrate effortlessly with all their other tools. It is critical that clinician/patient interactions that happen virtually have the same level of connectedness to the rest of the system as an in-person visit does.
Turn early adopters into evangelists
Communication theorist and sociologist Everett Rogers first published his theory on “Diffusion of Innovation” in 1962, and to this day it remains one of the most widely cited theories on consumer adoption of new innovations. According to Rogers, ideas come from innovators, but the drive of a product to market is through early adopters. We saw this pattern play out at the start of the pandemic; overall telehealth usage was closely correlated with having used telehealth in the past. In other words, if an organization had any experience with telehealth before the pandemic – even if it was only one person in a much larger practice – they were more likely to use telehealth at a higher level than organizations that didn’t have that prior experience. The impact of early adopters signaling that technology is usable and safe to the rest of the industry cannot be understated. If we believe that virtual care has a place in care delivery, then healthcare provider organizations should identify early adopters and help them become evangelists of that technology.
Applying lessons learned to advance adoption
COVID showed us that we don’t have to accept the conventional wisdom on healthcare’s notoriously slow adoption of new technologies. Lessons learned from the crisis adoption of telehealth provide insight for technology leaders who are looking for ways to jump-start the adoption of other meaningful innovations in healthcare delivery settings as well as other industries.
About Jessica Sweeney-Platt
Jessica Sweeney-Platt is vice president of Research and Editorial Strategy at athenahealth. In this role, she uses original insights derived from athenahealth’s nationwide network of over 100 million patients, making connections to healthcare industry trends and providing strategy based on this knowledge for practices and providers across the globe. Jessica was previously the executive director of athenahealth’s Research and Insights team. Prior to that role, she led the Enterprise Segment Marketing team, where she helped set the strategy for the company’s relationships with large health systems.
Before joining athenahealth in 2015, Jessica was a managing director with The Advisory Board Company, a Washington, DC-based healthcare research and technology provider. There, she was responsible for sharing the company’s research findings with members at annual meetings and onsite. With specific expertise in accountable care strategy, medical group growth strategies, and inpatient care redesign, Jessica focused much of her time working with research teams to create and deliver interactive teaching modules, onsite presentations, and workshops. Jessica was also formerly a managing director with the Corporate Executive Board (now Gartner), a for-profit network of executives at the world’s largest and most progressive organizations. She ran the HR Executive Forum, a membership program for human resource executives at mid-sized firms, and was a leading expert in the field of HR strategy. She also was responsible for executive education in the company’s strategy and innovation practice. Jessica earned a B.A. in History at Yale University.