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Digital health adoption stalled prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but recent momentum signals change

Digital health adoption had stalled prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, only to experience an uptick once the coronavirus began to spread, with consumers forced to consider telehealth and virtual care options in the midst of social distancing and isolation measures. But will this accelerated adoption of virtual health persist?

That depends on several factors that could drive or stall progress on that front, according to the Accenture 2020 Digital Health Consumer Survey.

One such factor is consumer attitudes toward digital health. Although people are interested in remote care services, there are certain things that make them hesitant to pursue it – such as a cumbersome digital experience and concerns over privacy, security and trust. On the provider side, difficulty integrating new tools and services into day-to-day clinical workflows has been a barrier to adoption.

Data shows that in 2020 fewer consumers were using digital tools to manage their health, at least pre-pandemic. In 2014, just 16% of consumers used mobile phone/tablet applications, a number that climbed to 48% in 2018. But in 2020 that percentage had dipped back down to about 35%.

Wearable technologies such as smartwatches that track fitness, vitals and lifestyle also saw a decline in usage in 2020, down to 18% of consumers, compared to a high of 33% in 2018.

WHAT’S THE IMPACT?

Virtual healthcare services became a necessity for millions of Americans as efforts to slow the transmission of COVID-19 sharply limited face-to-face visits with doctors and other care professionals. That’s a historic change, and while it has created numerous hardships for the healthcare industry and the people it serves, it also represents an opportunity to permanently shift the default care model to virtual services for many medical needs, Accenture found.

The key to this opportunity is the momentum created by forced digital health adoption. Nearly a quarter of healthcare consumers (23%) say reliable and secure digital tools that help them understand their health habits would motivate them to take a more active role in managing their health. More than half of consumers (55%) said “trusted healthcare professionals” would motivate them to take a more active role in managing their health. Yet only 11% said that their healthcare providers recommended the use of digital tools for patient health management.

Half of consumers agreed that a bad digital experience with a healthcare provider ruins the entire experience with that provider – and 39% believe a good digital interaction has a major influence on the patient experience. More than a quarter (26%) are even willing to switch to a new provider for high-quality digital services. Consumers with a primary care physician who have a bad digital experience with a provider (52%) say that it ruins the entire experience with the provider compared to 42% of those without a PCP.

When the pandemic ends, concerns about privacy and security will resurface. They never went away entirely. In fact, they’re just currently overlooked by many consumers, because people aren’t willing to risk their lives to leave the house.

In 2019, 89% of healthcare consumers trusted their doctor or other provider “very much” or “some” to keep their digital healthcare information, such as electronic medical records, secure. That percentage dropped to 83% in 2020. Trust in tech companies has also declined. More than half of consumers (55%) do not trust these companies to keep digital health information secure.

When asked, “How much do you trust each of the following organizations or people to keep your digital healthcare information secure?” consumers ranked doctors as second-most trusted (83%) — following hospitals (84%) — whereas tech companies ranked second to last (45%).

Before the pandemic urgency drove adoption, consumers already showed strong interest in a wide variety of virtual health services. Younger generations even prefer virtual over in-person care in some cases, when given the choice. And although consumers would be willing to receive virtual services from traditional care providers, they’re also open to receiving virtual services from tech companies and retail brands.

If given the choice, many consumers would choose virtual for basic care services and even for specialty care. They “definitely” or “probably” would receive health and wellness advisories (62%) and remote monitoring of ongoing health issues through at-home devices (57%).

While higher numbers of healthcare consumers are open to receiving virtual healthcare services from their traditional providers (54%), they are also willing to receive virtual care from technology or social media companies such as Google and Microsoft (27%); retail brands such as Best Buy, Walmart and Amazon (25%); and medical startups (21%).

THE LARGER TREND

Patients have embraced virtual care and telehealth at very high rates as a result of COVID-19, and nine out of 10 said the quality of care was as good as or better than before, according to findings of a global survey of 2,700 oncology, cardiology and immunology patients published in July.

Sixty percent said that, based on their experience during the pandemic, they want to use technology more for communicating with healthcare providers and managing their conditions in the future.

Forty-seven percent of respondents said they received better, more personalized responses; 41% said responses were quicker; and 40% said it was more convenient to access care through new communications channels.

Also, overall trust in the healthcare system has increased. Sixty percent of patients surveyed said their trust in healthcare providers has increased, and 45% said their trust in pharmaceutical and medical device companies has increased.

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com

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