Op-ed: 5 reasons why virtual care is here to stay

There’s no doubt COVID-19 changed life as we know it — from our daily routines to our world as whole. As a society for the past year+, we learned to adapt and remain resilient. We’ve done things in new and sometimes unexpected ways. And the digital evolution of health care access and delivery was no different.

Whether for urgent care, primary care provider (PCP) checkups or behavioral health needs, the benefits of virtual care became clear during this extraordinary public health crisis. There’s no going back — and that’s a good thing. Here are 5 reasons why virtual care is here to stay:

1. Members experienced the convenience and effectiveness of virtual care. It’s estimated virtual care visits reached more than 1 billion in 2020.1 Patients who had been previously unsure of the virtual experience — whether due to technical constraints or preference of being seen in-person — realized the convenience when COVID-19 almost gave them no choice but to try it.

Now, for certain physical assessments and behavioral health check-ins, virtual access is here to stay alongside the in-person approach some may still prefer. More than 7 in 10 people expect to receive health care virtually coming out of the pandemic,2 and we’re excited to see how this key engagement vehicle continues to evolve.

2. Providers rapidly scaled telehealth offerings. One reason many patients weren’t comfortable with virtual care was because their preferred providers weren’t available. That changed last year when more providers offered virtual care to fill the gap for cancelled care and for other needs. By May 2020, they were seeing between 50 and 175 times more patients this way than before the pandemic.For some patients, it was important to see their own providers — someone with whom they had a long-standing relationship — to shift to the convenience of a virtual setting.

3. The “choose your own adventure” mindset is normalizing. More and more people expect to be in the driver’s seat, with the ability to select their own preferred health care experience — whether that’s in-person or virtual. Insurers and providers should enable member choice, letting patients choose and facilitate the type of engagement they want.

Our virtual strategy is built around the idea of helping members see their preferred provider through their modality of choice. For instance, we’re developing digital-first health plans for members who are all-in on virtual. Members have a personalized care team to help navigate to right level of care virtually or in-person if needed. Virtual-first points of contact include access to chat, email or engaging a provider with the click of the button.

4. Government hurdles have fallen away. In response to the pandemic, the U.S. government removed regulatory hurdles that had slowed wider adoption of telehealth. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services gave HIPAA-covered health care providers a green light to provide care virtually. Meanwhile, dozens of states waived licensure requirements related to telehealth services. With so many patients and providers becoming more satisfied with virtual care experiences and outcomes, I don’t expect governments to rebuild barriers to adoption going forward.

5. Virtual care is part of the health care delivery ecosystem. This may be the most exciting reason of all. In my view, the future of virtual care is part of a broader vision of health care delivery that looks increasingly inevitable. More personalized health care will become available via provider-led care teams that help members navigate to the right type of care, whether virtual or in-person.

The breadth and depth of at-home care will increase as more supporting technology such as remote-patient monitoring and faster prescription delivery services emerge. Supporting all of this: Seamless digital connections between providers and insurers, and across member devices.

Advancements in virtual care are just one way the pandemic has brought the future of health care into sharper focus. And some day, I think we’ll see it all as just health care delivered through different platforms — some digital, some brick-and-mortar. I look forward to UnitedHealthcare continuing to play a key role in moving these initiatives forward.

1 US Virtual Care Visits to Soar to More than 1 Billion. Forrester Research. April 2020.

2 Telehealth Impact: Patient Survey Analysis. The COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition Telehealth Impact Study Work Group. Last updated April 11, 2021.