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Healthcare’s Digital Nightmare – The Struggles of Virtual Primary Care

A doctor interfacing with the virtual world

It’s been a steep learning curve for healthcare during the pandemic. First, providers had to deal with a new virus and learn how to best manage hospitals exceeding capacity. Pharmaceutical companies and researchers then leveraged resources to develop some incredibly amazing vaccines. And meanwhile, virtual primary care emerged as telemedicine services became the norm for millions of Americans and providers. (Read more about the evolution of telemedicine that 2020 kicked into high gear in this Bold story.) Through it all, healthcare organizations came to realize that the future of healthcare clearly lied in the digital realm. As a result, hundreds of new digital apps, platforms, decision-making tools, and more now exist.

While this sounds exciting and intriguing, the reality of the current virtual primary care system is far from appealing. Patients and providers alike are bombarded with all sorts of digital services, not knowing which one to use. In many cases, confusion abounds, and rather than creating a high-value, efficient, healthcare system, the opposite occurs. This is hardly the way to improve patient outcomes or better engage patients in their own healthcare. Plus, it opens the door for many other problems, including privacy violations and security threats. Unless solutions are introduced, the future of healthcare and virtual primary care are definitely at risk.

“Everybody who is not investing in a digital front door right now—or [not] investing in the tools that will be covering experience from the patient side and the clinician side—are potentially creating a lot of friction for the future.” –  Yakunin Solad, M.D., Medical Director of Digital Health and Telemedicine, Yale New Haven Health

Digital Problems Revisited

Only a couple of decades ago, healthcare policies created incentives to get healthcare systems to adopt electronic healthcare records (EHR). EHR was to be the future of healthcare. With such a large captive audience, EHR vendors grew at an accelerated pace. Dozens of high-quality systems were available, each with their own unique features and price tags. But there was one thing missing… interoperability. None of these EHR systems were able to “talk” well to one another. So, many of the potential benefits that EHR was supposed to offer took much longer to materialize. In a very similar way, virtual primary care is experiencing this problem all over again.

There are hundreds of digital healthcare applications and platforms on the market today. Some are designed to help patients check their symptoms. Other help them find the best provider. Some digital tools help providers monitor patients at home or provide the telehealth infrastructure needed for virtual primary care. Each of these offer significant value and advantages toward the future of healthcare if used correctly. But unfortunately, there is once again too many cooks in the kitchen. Different patients, different providers, and even different departments within healthcare organizations choose different tools. And at the end of the day, there’s more chaos and confusion than there is improvement.

Value-Based Healthcare Requires Collaboration

Over the last several years, there has been a push for greater value-based healthcare. Fee-for-service structures previously failed to place the patient first and led to high costs. Individual provider had incentives to perform a greater amount of services rather than limit them through teamwork. But as value-based programs have now realized, getting all care providers to work together toward a common goal is essential. Collaboration is one of the key ingredients that leads to better efficiency, better use of resources, and ultimately, better patient outcomes. For a better future of healthcare, incentives to promote collaboration are needed.

Naturally, these concepts apply to a virtual primary care system as well. If digital tools are to be used to enhance patient outcomes, then they must work in conjunction with one another. Patients must be aware of which ones the virtual primary care system prefers. Likewise, providers need to utilize platforms and apps that can easily communicate with one another. In today’s digital healthcare environment, managing healthcare’s big data is challenging but not impossible. (Dive deeper into how big data could help fix some of healthcare’s biggest problems in this Bold story.) Healthcare organizations must govern which digital systems are allowed in an effort to promote coordination and collaboration. Those that have already are seeing higher levels of patient engagement, which presumably will lead to better results.

“In order to achieve improved care coordination, several solutions can be considered. In each case, a more integrated, transparent, and accountable system is critical. Healthcare providers must overcome the difficulties in improving information sharing and data tracking to realize these goals.” – Pearl Health

A Concerning Recipe for Privacy and Security Disasters

Wasted resources and less-than-optimal patient outcomes are not the only concerning things with today’s virtual primary care systems. The use of multiple digital tools also poses notable threats in terms of patient privacy and data security. Cybersecurity experts note that a higher number of digital systems creates the potential for hackers to access information systems. And when one lacks adequate firewalls and security, it places the entire virtual primary care structure at risk. This is a concerning area for the future of healthcare as digital apps and platforms increase in number.

A cartoon of a doctor living in a giant phone
The shift to virtual primary care hasn’t quite been seamless, but when it comes to cybersecurity and data management, there are solutions.

Once again, the best way to address these concerns is to effectively oversee the types of digital tools being used. Healthcare systems endorsing a limited number of apps and platforms will be able to install effective privacy and cybersecurity policies. (Cybersecurity is non-negotiable–read why in this Bold story.) Likewise, it will be easier to ensure data communications take place from one to another without a high risk of data breaches. In contrast, virtual primary care programs that fail to do this will become vulnerable targets. Unfortunately, these types of concerns represent the future of healthcare. And designing virtual healthcare systems with this in mind will be important.

“Who can deliver a comprehensive experience, the complete experience that can create value [with] the best clinical outcomes at a total cost-of-care price that’s going to be effective? If you can develop that comprehensive business model, then I think there’s a number of buyers that exist…” – Dennis Weaver, M.D., Chief Clinical Officer, Oscar Health

Fixing the Digital Front Door

Healthcare experts have coined a phrase for the challenges that virtual primary care systems face today. They compare the growing number of healthcare apps and platforms as an organization’s digital front door. At the current time, the front door is in need of repair. Security and safety aspects need to be addressed. And patients and providers need to better understand which door to access. Organizations committed to the future of healthcare will make significant investments in this area. They will be the ones that will ultimately attract the most attention and yield the best results.


The official Bold Business survey results are clear: most favor work-from-home over going back to the office. Read more in this important Bold story!

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