COVID-19 exposed the US health care system’s reliance on in-person care delivery. The digital health technologies required to support a seamless, anytime, anywhere health ecosystem have been available for at least a decade, but until recently, there has been little pressure for consumers, physicians and health systems to adopt these technologies.
What began as a necessary shift toward digitally enabled remote care has already reshaped care delivery in the near term. For example, nearly half of Medicare primary care visits in April 2020 were via telemedicine (43.5%) compared with less than 1% in February (0.1%).1 What remains unclear is whether the surge in telemedicine has made consumers and physicians more open to virtual care in the future and whether it will accelerate health care organizations’ journey towards a smart health ecosystem.
To address these questions, EY surveyed over 2,000 US health care consumers and 300 US physicians in July 2020 to understand their utilization and views on health care technology (see “About the study”). We found that the US health system’s response to COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of health technology and shattered preconceptions of what it takes to create a digital-first health experience. The result is increased “stickiness” of telemedicine in the near term and increased openness to adopt smart health care technologies in the future. These findings are consistent with EY research in 2019, which found that these groups were already expecting a significant shift to a digital health system in the next decade, before COVID-19.2
These circumstances are not unique to the US. Globally, countries have experienced the same shift to virtual care and are in a similar position to reimagine their health systems as an integrated physical and virtual ecosystem.
Necessity drives new experiences
As the pandemic accelerated, multiple factors, including the desire to avoid office or hospital settings, limited consumers’ direct access to medical care. As a result, 42% of Americans skipped or deferred medical treatment, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) poll.3 While some of those who sought medical attention required or preferred in-person treatment, many others utilized remote consultations to assess COVID-19 symptoms or receive care while remaining safely at home.
The result was a massive spike in telemedicine adoption by consumers during the pandemic. (Figure 1) Our research shows that penetration of video consults nearly quadrupled from 5% to 19% while telephone consults more than doubled from 11% to 24%. And for most patients (70%), a telephone consultation worked just as well as communicating their symptoms to the physician in person.