August 27, 2021 | 10-minute read

Digital health vs. virtual care: What’s the difference?

Healthcare is notorious for its acronyms, buzzwords, and confusing terminology. Let’s get some clarity about the distinctions between digital health and virtual care – and why it’s important to know the difference.

Healthcare’s data-driven revolution is well underway. Sparked by the advent of EHRs and fueled by a vast array of digital innovations, the industry’s health IT ecosystem is growing at an unprecedented rate. And there’s no doubt that digital health is evolving with distinct capabilities and user benefits.

Healthcare technology has proved an invaluable ally in the quest to improve outcomes and reduce costs, attracting thousands of entrepreneurs to the exciting, highly active health IT sector. The market is expected to explode to more than $149 billion by 2025 as technology companies shape their visions with providers, payers, and patients in mind.

What providers need to know about digital health.

In order to make smart decisions in this crowded marketplace of dynamic ideas, providers need to know exactly what their potential partners are offering and how these tools will help achieve specific goals.

That process starts with understanding the definitions of key terms. Lately, there’s been a lot of discussion of both “digital health” and “virtual care.” While they are often used interchangeably with additional buzzwords like “remote care” and “telehealth” or “telemedicine,” each of these phrases has a unique meaning.

Some thought leaders have conflicting opinions about how these phrases should be used since definitions evolve over time. However, providers shopping around for digital health platforms should be clear about what functions or capabilities they need.

In this blog post, we’ll explore how experts view the differences between digital health and virtual care and how these terms can affect your strategic plans for delivering exceptional patient experiences.

What is virtual care?

Virtual care is the practice of using remote technologies, such as phone calls, video conferencing, connected devices, and online chats, to connect with patients.

Virtual care includes:

  • Telemedicine — the delivery of clinical services through remote methods
  • Telehealth — the delivery of broader services, including education and administrative functions, over video or phone

During the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual care has been invaluable for maintaining patient-provider relationships and expanding access to care for vulnerable and underserved communities.

However, virtual care is largely used as an apples-to-apples replacement for in-person interactions. For example, a person who cannot come into the provider’s office for a scheduled appointment might be offered a video chat instead. The video conference then proceeds in largely the same manner as a face-to-face visit.

While this strategy may be adequate for meeting many patient needs, it doesn’t harness the full scope of emerging technologies and value-based care techniques. To truly maximize the potential of non-traditional, data-driven interactions, we must start to enter the realm of digital health.

What is digital health?

Digital health encompasses everything that virtual health has to offer – and much more. Digital health is the larger universe of digital devices, algorithms, and apps that support informed decision-making as well as collaborative communication across the care continuum.

Examples of digital health tools include:

  • Remote patient monitoring (RPM) with home-based medical devices and wearables
  • Patient-facing apps that collect and share data
  • Online messaging and care navigation tools
  • Digital administrative platforms for online bill pay, scheduling, or patient intake
  • AI algorithms and predictive analytics

Unlike virtual care, digital health is more than just a way to transpose a traditional visit into a new medium. Digital health offers a broad spectrum of interaction options to create a wrap-around network of support and information, thereby fostering better outcomes and lower costs.

How can providers use digital health to go beyond the basics of traditional care?

Crafting a holistic digital health experience for patients can improve the management of chronic conditions, prevent spending and revenue leakage on avoidable services, and ensure that providers are able to incorporate the social determinants of health into their shared decision-making.

Healthcare organizations that want to take a comprehensive approach to digital health will need to implement an interoperable, integrated technology platform that offers seamless interactions to patients and clinical end-users alike.

With a single launchpad for the digital experience, providers can centralize their initiatives. This adds value for the patient, who now knows exactly where to go and what to do when interacting with their providers. The right digital health platform empowers patients to share and view personal health data, complete administrative tasks on their own time and access tools tailored to their specific needs.

A digital health platform also helps providers manage their valuable time more efficiently by reducing burdens on administrative staff and enabling clinical users to access key information in a workflow-friendly manner. The results of adopting a multifunction digital health platform might include:

  • New revenue streams
  • 50-75% less time spent on disparate tech systems
  • Deeper insights into patient care
  • 30-50% improvement in patient satisfaction
  • Improved patient outcomes

By building upon the foundations of virtual care and expanding into true digital health, provider organizations can prepare themselves for the future of proactive, effective, whole-person healthcare.

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