Many aspects of virtual care, such as telemedicine, have shown great promise to help bridge the gap for many patients who face severe challenges accessing healthcare services, such as those living in remote, or underserved areas.

Virtual care can also help reduce unnecessary emergency room and in-person physician visits, enabling patients to communicate with a care provider remotely to determine if a trip to the ER or doctor’s office is necessary. This type of intervention can reduce cost, increase physician productivity, and also save the patient the stress, or hassle, of an unnecessary trip to the physician’s office or emergency department.

One hospital even found that a large majority of their chronically ill patients who interacted with physicians through video felt the virtual experience “actually improved their relationship with their provider.” This is an interesting take away, as some critics view aspects of virtual care, such as physicians interacting with patients remotely, as impersonal and generally not something that would strengthen the patient-physician dynamic. But the immediacy of treatment and convenience that virtual care affords patients and providers, especially for low-risk situations, outweighs any cons of the physician not physically being in the room with a patient.

Strong consumer appeal

Among consumers, interest in virtual care is growing. According to a 2017 Accenture survey, about three-quarters of the 1,501 Americans polled would use virtual services to track blood pressure, pulse and glucose levels, for follow-up appointments, or for a non-emergency health issue such as a sore throat.

Yet, despite wide interest, the survey also revealed that only one out of five had actually used virtual care for health services, but would be more likely to do so if a physician or payer encouraged them.

As technology and innovation enables a growing number of people to be more proactive about managing their health, virtual care services prove appealing and signal to providers and payers that consumers are ready to integrate this type of service into their care. However, despite excitement surrounding the possibilities virtual care technology affords healthcare, boundaries are still being explored and questions remain.

Taking virtual care to the next level

As the virtual trend in healthcare gains traction, we are starting to see the technology optimized in different ways.

Take for example the Mercy Virtual Care Center in Missouri. The $54 million, 125,000-square-foot virtual care clinic consists of more than 300 medical staff who care for patients at 38 hospitals across seven states—all virtually.

According to U.S. News & World Report, who profiled the virtual clinic, the center coordinates direct care for patients at remote ICUs, neurologists work with remote community hospitals consulting on stroke treatments, virtual hospitalists order and read tests while nurses answer questions on issues ranging from nosebleeds to sinus infections.  Physicians also “stay in near continuous touch with chronically ill patients at home.”

Connected devices such as iPads, blood pressure monitors, and scales play a big role, enabling a consistent stream of patient data to Mercy care teams remotely, ensuring patients are closely monitored and any health crisis detected and averted before problems escalate.

Mercy’s virtual clinic has seen encouraging results. According to Randall Moore, Mercy Virtual’s president, mortality in the ICU is trending 40 percent less than predicted. “By virtually monitoring ICUs 24/7, we’re getting to problems earlier.”

University of Southern California (USC) is taking virtual care beyond telemedicine and connected clinics set-up for remote monitoring with the development of their Virtual Care Clinic. This includes the development of a mobile app that enables patients to meet with a lifelike avatar of their doctor. The “virtual doctor” will be designed to replicate the facial expressions, gestures and voice of the patient’s human doctor but will not be an actual person.

Powered by virtual reality technology and artificial intelligence, these “virtual doctors” will have “the ability to recognize emotion and show empathy” as well as “the knowledge base to diagnose problems and provide information personalized to the patient.”

“In a way, what we’re doing with the virtual care clinic is we’re developing the operating system for health care,” says Leslie Saxon, professor of Clinical Medicine at Keck Medicine of USC and executive director of the USC Center for Body Computing. “Most of the health care delivery in the U.S. and globally will be delivered over a digital platform, meaning not in person,” says Saxon.

Through mobile apps, data gathering and analysis, wearable sensors and other elevated technologies, USC’s Virtual Care Clinic is poised to deliver wireless, far reaching care that can be accessed regardless of location, from anywhere in the world.

Navigating a virtual future in healthcare

The future of healthcare is very much technology-driven. With interconnected devices, physicians receive data and know more about their patients than ever before. The intent behind these innovations is to make healthcare more convenient, effective, affordable, personalized, and safer for more people—if not universally.