Telehealth's Last Breath: Embracing the New Era of Virtual Care

The 2020s are shaping up to be a crucial time for healthcare in America. While we're seeing incredible advances in medicine, technology and treatment options, there's a harsh reality we can't ignore: many Americans still struggle to access these breakthroughs due to where they live, their financial situation, or their understanding of healthcare.

Consider the numbers: Over 80 million Americans currently live in areas where it's hard to find healthcare services nearby, according to the AMA. A quarter of Americans don't have a regular doctor, and a whopping 60 million haven't seen a doctor in over two years. And, shockingly, 30 million Americans rely on emergency rooms for primary care, highlighting a growing gap in our healthcare system.

Despite headlines suggesting the "death of telehealth" and calling out the retreat of outside players from healthcare, these stories miss the bigger picture. Rather than signaling the end of telehealth or the feeling that healthcare can never be reimagined, this moment marks a significant and transformative shift in how we deliver care.

The Evolution of Telehealth

To understand where we’re going, we should first reflect on where we’ve been. Telehealth began by digitizing traditional care to meet immediate patient needs, a solve that brought the "doctor visit online." However, these solutions were built around a flawed idea – that patients actually enjoyed doctor visits, and bringing a broken system online would solve the experience issues that have driven a significant impact on care avoidance.

But instead of dwelling on these shortcomings, turn your attention to a prevailing narrative: that as service utilization retreats to pre-pandemic levels we must assume that "telehealth is dead."

This decline in utilization simply underscores the fundamental flaws in these hastily adopted solutions during the pandemic. They were quick fixes, not built for long-term sustainability. Characterized by transactional, poorly designed, and inflexible care delivery methods that didn't fully integrate into patients' healthcare journeys, these solutions ultimately left both patients and clinicians more frustrated than before.

And now as the COVID fog has lifted, we have emerged with the realization that patients aren't just patients—they're consumers too, and the limitations of these first-gen solutions have become evident.

The end of this "telehealth 1.0" period signals not a failure but a necessary shift towards a more integrated and dynamic approach to virtual care – a shift that should be celebrated. We now understand the steps needed to redesign our care delivery models, ensuring not only increased utilization but also improved consumer satisfaction, enhanced health outcomes, and ROI for those that deploy it – a model of care with true staying power.

The New Era of Virtual Care

If we view the virtual care era as a pivotal transformation in care delivery and consider early telehealth as a temporary fix, what will motivate consumers to embrace virtual care? This question underscores the need to examine a few significant trends.

First, we are more digitally native and connected than ever. Our phones are powerful computers, our devices in our homes and around us are collecting millions of personalized data points per day. And, this digital integration spans generations—from an aging population using Facebook and Apple Watches to young people who would never seek care without first Googling or TikTok-searching their burning health questions.

Second, convenience is king. This principle applies to nearly every aspect of our lives, with the ability to have almost anything delivered to our door within hours at the click of a button. From food and groceries to entertainment and furniture, online companies have completely reshaped the concept of convenience. Unsurprisingly, the rise of mobile technology and social connectivity has transformed patients into consumers and "shoppers" of healthcare.

But the shopping experience in healthcare is still fragmented, a tangled web, and fundamentally broken. It’s not controversial, people deserve better avenues to get the care they need. That's why non-traditional care delivery players like Hims & Hers and GoodRx, or even Life Science organizations like Johnson & Johnson, can succeed in consumer care—they aren't shackled by the "innovator's dilemma." Freed from outdated models, these organizations are embracing the principles of e-commerce and consumer activation, positioning them to swiftly transition into future care models.

Lastly, the advancement of technology. Healthcare is positioned to be one of the most disrupted categories by AI. And, the recent and rapid advancements in models and their capabilities, such as GPT-4 or Google's Gemini, are making the moat of incumbency a thing of the past. Additionally, most of healthcare's most complex problems stem from our inability to manage and draw conclusions from large datasets – this is where AI is most impressive. While we are still in the early innings of building, AI is set to revolutionize how care is delivered. Driving better personalization for patients, increased efficiency for clinicians, and ultimately driving down costs in the system.

With this, the case for virtual care has never been stronger, and I believe by 2030 most care will start online. The future is about rebuilding the underlying infrastructure across care delivery, and payments, and data to ensure we bring care from the virtual front door to the patient front door - truly delivering on the promise of “anytime and anywhere” care.

Embracing the Future

The call to action is clear: it's time to fully embrace the evolution. Let’s say goodbye to the continued debate about if telehealth is dead and embrace one fundamental truth, Virtual care is care - not just the next step; it's a transformative leap towards revolutionizing care delivery.

It is not just an option; it's a cornerstone of our future healthcare system. Those who accept this reality will be part of the solution, while those who resist will be left behind. Organizations now have the opportunity to offer scalable, high-quality, accessible, and personalized care experiences to patients, consumers, and members alike.

At Wheel, we're thrilled to be leading the charge in this transformative journey, and our track record speaks volumes. Over the last four years, Wheel has facilitated nearly five million visits in this new model, partnering with some of the most prominent brands in the country. This year, we’re on track to deliver more visits than ever before, collecting billions of data points and building the most advanced platform for virtual care delivery.

And personally, I believe in a healthcare experience designed for the future and have seen how innovative thinking and relentless builders can make healthcare better. As a new mom, I've experienced firsthand the benefits of leveraging technology for convenience and effectiveness during pregnancy and postpartum. As a consumer, I am delighted for a new experience within my healthcare journey - it’s about time.

Join us at Wheel as we pave the way towards a healthcare system that prioritizes innovation, efficiency, and patient empowerment.

About the Author

Michelle Davey is the CEO and co-founder of Wheel, the leading platform for consumer-centric care. Michelle is passionate about expanding access to care and founded Wheel to put great care within everyone’s reach by seamlessly enabling companies and clinicians to deliver care virtually.