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Bringing virtual care to life

The growth of digital technology has changed our lives in many different ways and continues to do so.

As consumers, we have quicker and improved access to a wider range of goods and services. In the west, in particular, we now take this online experience for granted and fully accept that it’s an integral part of our lives. We shop online, stay in touch with friends through social media, take part in online communities, receive news, information and entertainment through mobile phone apps, communicate with service providers on the Internet and generally organise our lives through the use of digital technology.

Digital technology has also been making an impact on access to health care services for quite some time. As technology improves — becoming easier to use and access throughout the world — it’s no surprise that health care and health insurance providers are set to further embrace the technology. The concept of virtual care is to deliver patients a quality health care service that makes their experience more convenient, more streamlined and more closely attuned to their needs. The services stemming from this technology can extend to online patient encounters, improved access to care teams and even access to electronic health records and medical information. It will, of course, never replace traditional health systems. But it will certainly be an essential part of it, increasing its scope and easing the burden on currently overtaxed systems.

The primary care provider model delivered through digital technology

In basic terms, virtual health has the potential to provide the delivery of medical services and access to quality, impartial and convenient care through the use of digital technology. The Internet, email and phone apps enable patients to connect with, and be a part of, a primary health care model. This is a particularly exciting development in emerging economies where access to primary health care — through a general practitioner (GP; a family doctor or primary health care provider) — either doesn't exist or is out of reach for financial or geographical reasons. One core example of this health platform is allowing patients to consult with a doctor through a video interface no matter where they are located — more efficient patient management and care coordination for both patients and providers.

The benefits of the GP model of primary health care are widely understood and appreciated. It provides a standardised best clinical practice and delivers an incredibly valuable service to patients, widely believed to improve care. The role a GP plays in this is varied, but they tend to be part of a fully coordinated service that includes hospitals and specialists. Overall, the primary health care model provides the essential 'time, touch and compassion' that can make all the difference to a patient's well-being and recovery.

A key benefit is the potential for reduced costs and more efficient monitoring and management of chronic diseases and conditions such as diabetes. Managed care can be provided by regular virtual check ups — using Skype and/or health apps. There are great examples of individuals receiving full diagnosis of chronic diseases virtually — often including prescriptions and medications. High-quality patient care and care delivery, done virtually.

Much more than the technology

Surprisingly, one of the key points about virtual health care is that the technology isn't its most important feature. Digital technology simply provides the means of delivery and allows for appropriate access and communication. Virtual health care is all about delivering a primary health care model — offering a single, coordinated, trustworthy health care service, covering the needs of every patient.

Aetna International and the future of virtual health

At Aetna International, we see the benefits of delivering access to an integrated health care system through a virtual interface. With that in mind, we have developed our own virtual health care service. Virtual health care itself is not new but by closely monitoring developments and learning much from the trials and errors of virtual systems throughout the world, we now offer a streamlined and highly effective service. The service is currently available in some parts of the world, and the service will be extended across other regions in the future. 

Listen to Dr Anushka Patchava, Proposition & Strategy Lead, vHealth discuss virtual health and other health care trends in the Fit For Duty podcast episode below. 

How virtual health care can make a real difference

The virtual health care method would work especially well in countries where the primary health care model doesn't exist or isn't easily accessible. For example, a patient could, in the first instance, have a video consultation with an Aetna International virtual doctor through his or her mobile phone. The doctor, highly trained in the delivery of telehealth, could make assessments of the patient's symptoms and then recommend the next course of action. Among the appropriate actions available, the doctor could then arrange a specialist to visit the patient at home for further tests. The results of those tests would appear online almost instantly, allowing our doctor to make an appointment at the hospital, if required.

Through an integrated mobile phone app, the doctor could even book a taxi to take the patient to his appointment. And with the appointment taking place at a hospital in the Aetna International network, the cost would be greatly reduced, contributing to Aetna International’s efforts to keep premium inflation in check for the benefit of members. Meanwhile, the patient's long-term care management would be taken care of through Aetna International’s doctor, with all the medication they need, sent directly to their home. From symptom to diagnosis, the patient would receive fully coordinated primary care.

“Although virtual, the service will provide the compassion element of health care, too. Virtual care enables patients to see doctors who provide immediate, virtual help and treatment, backed up by a network of highly skilled doctors who take care of the rest. 40% of the diagnosis and triage process (determining best next steps), that can’t be carried out virtually, will be carried out by a care partner specialist that we would arrange for the patient to see in person.” Dr. Sneh Khemka, President of Population Health Solutions at Aetna International.

Easily delivered through existing technology

One of the key aspects of virtual health care, from the patient's point of view, is that it uses the digital technology they’re already familiar with. Whether it's Skype, mobile phone apps, email, the Internet or just the telephone, it will be easily accessible, convenient and simple to use. There’s nothing daunting about virtual health care – especially for those patients already comfortable with using existing technology, such as through online shopping or to access entertainment.

Looking ahead to the future of virtual health care

At Aetna International we have developed a virtual health care service — vHealth by Aetna — that will benefit our members — more than 800,000 in early 2018 — around the world as the service becomes available. vHealth by Aetna is currently available in a number of countries around the world including India, and is set to launch in the UAE later in 2018. We’ll continue to enhance and extend this virtual care service in the future. We believe this alternative primary health care model will be of real interest to all our corporate clients and individual members alike. Although the advantages of virtual health care are obvious to us, there will of course be a need to market the service and communicate the benefits to our customers and clients. Happily, due to the very nature of the service, this should prove to be a straightforward and wholly positive task.

Value-based care

Aetna International's value-based care model is a key part of this digital health solution. We are transforming health care by partnering with local doctors, medical centers, nurses and other providers to make sure members receive the right care at the right time and in the right place.

Learn more about virtual care in this short video: Virtual care — the future for expats?

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