More than three-quarters of U.S. healthcare consumers welcome the idea of virtual visits with physicians, according to the results of a consumer survey conducted by The Advisory Board Company, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting and advisory firm. As revealed in a June 19 announcement, 77 percent of consumers would consider seeing a physician virtually, while 19 percent already have, as revealed in the Virtual Visits Consumer Choice Survey, which surveyed 4,879 consumers online during September 2016.

“Across industries, consumers have become accustomed to using virtual technology for both real-time and asynchronous interactions. Health care providers can no longer wait to catch up,” Tom Cassels, national strategy partner at Advisory Board, said in a statement. “Providers have designed care access around their own convenience and will increasingly find patients willing to pay for their own convenience and alternatives to driving to physician offices for medical expertise.”

In particular, the most popular types of virtual visits tested in Advisory Board’s survey interested more than 70 percent of respondents, including prescription question or refill, pre-surgery and select post-operation appointments, receiving ongoing results from an oncologist, and ongoing care for chronic condition management. Select pregnancy checkups, weight loss or smoking cessation coaching, dermatology consults, and psychologist consults also ranked among top offerings. Overall, the majority of the nearly 5,000 survey respondents reported that they would be willing to consider a virtual visit in each of the 21 primary and specialty care scenarios tested.

With regard to consumers’ concerns around virtual visits, the top concern—identified by 21 percent of respondents—was care quality, followed by inaccurate diagnosis or inadequate treatment (19 percent). Nine percent of respondents had no concerns about virtual visits.

Shortly after the announcement of the survey results, Emily Zuehlke, a consultant in the Market Innovation Center at The Advisory Board Company, spoke with Healthcare Informatics Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland regarding some of the survey’s results, and the implications of those results for the future of virtual healthcare. Below are excerpts from that interview.

What prompted you to conduct this particular survey at this time?

We’ve done a number of different types of consumer choice surveys, and wanted to understand the tradeoffs that consumers make. A lot of surveys ask consumers to “check all that apply,” and that isn’t particularly helpful. We wanted to find more specific useful information. And this is something we get a lot of questions from our members about, every year.

Emily Zuehlke

Beyond the marquee-headline result of 77 percent of healthcare consumers being open to virtual physician visits, what other major results did you and your colleagues uncover?

One was that, across all of the different primary care, chronic, and specialty care settings, the majority of patients said they’d be willing to try virtual visits, so the interest in this is very high. So whether it’s ongoing chronic care management, or to see specialists, there is broad interest among American consumers in virtual care.

Were you surprised at all by those results?

We were surprised by how many people had said they’d already used one, and by the level of enthusiasm. We believed that there would be more enthusiasm among consumers than physicians, but nearly 80 percent, that wasn’t surprising. Who was most interested wasn’t surprising—younger, more affluent, urban consumers, millennials. But even among Medicare patients, there was a fair amount of interest.

What were the percentages of interest among the different age groups?

So if we look at who’s tried a virtual visit, here are the results: in the 30-49 group, it was 34.3 percent; among 50-64-year-olds, it was 3.7 percent; among the 65-plus group, only 2.5 percent; in the 18-29-year-old group, it was 24.6 percent.

What about the various levels of enthusiasm among the different age groups?

Across all the use cases, the level of enthusiasm was strongest for the two cohorts 50 and under. The  most popular use case was seeing a provider for a question about a prescription or a refill on a prescription; and the level of enthusiasm for that use case was pretty consistent: 27 percent of those 18-29 were enthusiastic about virtual visits in that kind of situation, while 21 percent of the 65-plus group were also enthusiastic.

This sounds like it represents what should be a green light for providers to get their strategy together around virtual visits in telehealth, correct?

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Yes, I would say so. It’s a green light telling them that this is coming down the pike. Because of issues around reimbursement, it’s hard to know exactly when this will become a true consumer mandate, but it’s time for providers to think about what their strategies are. What’s more, we see this [the provision of virtual care options] as being a key way to reach out to new patients and to attract them. We know from previous research that healthcare consumers are making multiple appointments at provider organizations in their local markets, and are making their “tie-breaker” decisions on which providers to engage with, based on the speed-to-visit factor; so in that context, providing virtual visits could prove to be important. So yes, overall, this could prove to be a good loyalty driver, and from the population health angle, that will be a big win for the providers who move forward in this area.

This could also prove to be a boon in terms of time-use productivity among physicians, too, correct?

Absolutely. We’ve seen case uses—one example is MGH-Beacon Hill [a medical clinic operated by Massachusetts General Hospital/Partners Healthcare in Boston]; they targeted the 20 percent of their consumers who were having five to ten outpatient visits a year, and shifted just a few of those in-person visits to virtual ones, and because those visits were virtual, they were able to shift two out of four visits to online, and increase their panel size by 29 percent. So it was a win-win for everyone in that case.

Do you have any data on how many providers are offering virtual visits already?

We know from a May 2016 survey by Azizia, that 63 percent of providers are using telehealth in some way.

So you’re seeing a lot of interest among providers in virtually provided care, then?

We’re seeing a lot of interest, yes.