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What is virtual health? The technology that promises to revolutionise health care for expats and the globally mobile

We spoke to Aetna International President Richard Di Benedetto about this life-changing technology and how expats in particular will benefit from access to virtual care.

Young Asian woman using smartphone in a Singapore cafe Young Asian woman using smartphone in a Singapore cafe

What is virtual health?

What is virtual health care? How would you describe it?

Virtual care is the capability to access a doctor through a video call on your phone or computer, anytime, anywhere in the world.

With mobile technology what it is today, the capabilities must be almost limitless. Are there other services that it includes?

Of course, you can access much more service things than just advice. You can receive diagnosis of certain conditions, (and where permitted) you can have prescriptions sent to your home, and you can be referred to specialists. If the virtual doctor says, ‘You need to visit a specialist doctor’, he or she can guide you through a network of hospitals and specialised doctors — all without leaving your home or office.

You can also upload medical records and other information into a virtual care environment — your wellness record.

So will the virtual doctor replace a normal primary care doctor or GP?

No. Physical visits [to a doctor] may still need to be done. But many visits can now be done online. Our initial data suggests that 47% of the people that see a virtual doctor, do not need to see a doctor in person in the following 30 days. Think how many people visited the doctor when they didn’t need to – they just used their phone or their computer.

Middle Eastern man and woman reading a text message on cell phone Middle Eastern man and woman reading a text message on cell phone

Is virtual health easy to use?

It’s very easy to use, thanks to the products of the technology. You just need to register, log in, choose an appointment and choose where/how you want to have it: on your phone, tablet or computer. It’s easy and intuitive to use. Registration takes about two minutes.

How can virtual health care drive down the cost of health care?

It plays a big role in driving down the cost of health care.

First, it reduces costs for employers, for example, because people save a lot of time as they don’t need to travel to see a doctor. In some places, people might need two hours to go to see a family doctor. With virtual health, you just need a video appointment on your phone.

Second, because you have a critical mass of virtual doctors/family doctors, the cost per virtual consultation (or virtual visit) is lower than a physical one — much lower.

This allows families, for example, to play a flat rate per year to use it as many times as they need — rather than having to pay for individual physical appointments, which can mount up very quickly in some cases.

Arabic professor and Arabic college Students looking at a cell phone Arabic professor and Arabic college Students looking at a cell phone

Expats and the globally mobile

It’s easy to see how virtual health can help expats and the globally mobile. Tell us a bit more about the particular benefits for expats:

It can benefit people in many different ways. For example, it helps if you live in a place where the market is broken, where there is no primary care.

It can help if access to primary care has a big waiting list. We’ve seen this in many different countries across Europe. In some places there are huge waiting lists to see a family doctor or GP.

Many expats won’t be familiar with the health care system in their new country of residence and virtual health can help guide them through the health care system to make sure they get the care they need.

And, as I’ve mentioned, it can help people who live great distances from primary care doctors or other medical facilities.

What types of expats are using virtual health already?

There are two main profiles and they’re very distinct.

Virtual health offers families great value, great access and, therefore, great peace of mind. The value for them and their family members is the convenience around care: your child has a problem in the middle of the night, you think it’s not an emergency but you want to consult with a doctor and get advice. Virtual health allows you to do that immediately and without leaving the house.

The c-suite — directors, executives, high-net-worth-individuals — have also been early adopters. Many business people travel widely for work, and they want trusted medical advice and services when they travel: diagnosis, prescriptions or just some particular health care advice.

I travel a lot — probably 45% of my time is spent travelling. For me it’s very valuable. I can access a trusted doctor, anytime, anywhere in the world.

And my family all use virtual health. One child is in Paris and the other is in Latin America and I know that at any time in any place they can access the family doctors to get advice, get a diagnosis or get referred somewhere. It brings peace of mind for all of us.

What would be an example of virtual health in action?

Ok, so you are in Singapore, the Middle East or Africa, and you think that you have a fever or a cough. Within half an hour you can immediately consult a doctor through a video call. He or she will see all your medical conditions — medications, allergies, previous conditions. They can give you advice or even a diagnosis on the spot. They can give you a prescription, depending on where you are (and if it’s regulatory permitted), so that you can get better.

If you think you really need to go to a facility to see a specialised doctor, the virtual doctor can advise you on the best facilities — where to go to get further treatment.

How does virtual health affect the management of chronic conditions? Diabetes, mental health, asthma etc.

Virtual health can really help with chronic conditions and chronic diseases. Not only can virtual care doctors connect patients to different specialities, but they can make sure that you stay on track, on your diet and on your health journey. It can remind you to take your medication, to check in or to do home tests.

Changing attitudes

While many people — especially expats — can see the benefits of virtual health, others are resistant, saying there’s no substitute for actually visiting a doctor. This is so often the way with new innovations, so how have you seen attitudes to this technology change in the last five years?

People’s attitudes to technology are changing more quickly, and so attitudes to the role of technology in health care are also changing. People are much more open: more open to engage with technology, more open to share their patient data — from Fitbits to other health management apps.

We have also noticed that through using technology, people/consumers are making more informed decisions. They really know who they want to see, where they want to see it. What is the rating of the doctor, of the hospital? Now you can make more informed decisions about your own health care, thanks to technology.

60% of people who see a virtual doctor don’t go to see a doctor in the following 30 days. The idea that you need to be in a room with a doctor is changing. And that mentality is shifting in many sectors, from retail to banking.

How do I know that I’m speaking to a good doctor? Someone suitable for my needs?

Quality of care is absolutely fundamental to virtual care. For Aetna’s own vHealth service, we employ doctors, but we also train them specifically to be virtual doctors. Our doctors — and this is absolutely critical - follow international medical protocol that we update constantly.

Also, customers can rate their doctor at the end of the consultation. Any rating below a certain number will trigger retraining of the family doctor.

So you know that the service is always being monitored and improved by the business as well as its users.

How should we gauge the success of a virtual health service?

I think there are at least three different measurements. First is utilisations: it’s very important that people utilise virtual care. Not just once, but over time.

Second is the outcome: did you get a better health outcome? Do you prevent people from needing health care facilities?

The third, as you know, is the quality of the service: the care and the care delivery. Are customers satisfied? How do they rate your service?

Close-up of man videochatting with female doctor Close-up of man videochatting with female doctor

The future of virtual health care

What role do you see virtual health playing in the future?

I think it is going to play a bigger and bigger role as we move forward. Acceptance is pretty high — particularly through mobile devices — in different places across the globe. So, its role is going to increase.

For users, it will be a single point of entry for all health care. People will have all their health data, health records and health dashboard in one place. Just as you have your [bank] account dashboard, you will have your health dashboard — with your GP. It will help you see how you are progressing on your care journey.

I also think it has a major role to play with governments (population health), helping citizens to access care in a more efficient and cost-efficient manner. It will also help to shorten waiting lists and reduce the wastage we see in some markets.

Virtual care will bring more services to the community that are needed. It will also help integrate health and health care into the community.