How Can Virtual Health Care Help Me Manage my Chronic Illness?

Date: 10/08/2021

Most days I would give so much in exchange for more pain-free moments with the people I love. Really, those people are who make every day less and less about my illness, and more about my freedom. 

However, like many of us who suffer with chronic illness, I want more independence—not just for how I get around, but in terms of how I manage my health. And while it is still very new to me to talk about my chronic illness so publicly, I have been eager to discuss with my community (that’s you!) about the new developments coming out to help us regain a little bit of control: that’s right! I’m talking about virtual health care, and even virtual health care apps!

I’m sure you’ve been seeing it too: more and more headlines, posts, and accounts centered on virtual health care and remote health care. From reading those sources, I’ve started to see virtual health care technology as a pretty enticing option for anyone with chronic illness, particularly during those times when our health journey feels a bit like an uncontrollable rollercoaster you just want to get off.

Of course, I don’t want to dismiss the fact that the virtual health care industry is still very new. One study of almost 40K patients makes a good point to this effect, saying that it hasn’t been possible for enough evidence to be gathered about the effects of virtual health care on chronic, long-term illness – such as COPD, diabetes, Lyme, or heart failure – to be of any true merit. But while VHC must be studied beyond 2021 to show a significant effect on care for chronic illness patients (like me!), I wanted to see what was out there anyhow.

Let’s begin!

What is Virtual Health Care (VHC)?

When I began looking for clues on what virtual health care (VHC) really means, I found a ton of related words like ‘telemedicine’ and ‘remote doctor’ and ‘online prescription ordering’, but when it came down to it, the consensus among a variety of professionals is that VHC is a general term that describes all that and more.

Basically, virtual health care (and I’m paraphrasing from intouchhealth.com) is all the ways in which health care providers interact with patients by digital means, on a remote basis. In most cases, VHC simply refers to the digital methods patients and doctors use to communicate about health, i.e., video, audio, or instant messaging.

When I went digging a bit further to learn what else falls under the heading of virtual health care, I found these five VHC types thanks to Mckinsey & Company. I’ll go through them a bit below.

5 Types of Virtual Health Care for Chronic and Acute Illness in 2021

1. Virtual Urgent Care Technologies that come On-Demand

When it comes to chronic illness, many of us have those moments where we need urgent, immediate care, advice, or a prescription. We have phone numbers and references logged away for times of need, yet when it comes down to it, emergency rooms can be a health risk, and are often over-populated, which leaves us a bit stranded when we need care NOW.

On the other hand, most of us are already using at least one kind of assistive technology for emergency purposes. This first type of VHC is therefore related to addressing urgent, emergency, and critical care needs for acute and chronic illnesses and conditions, ultimately with the intent to reduce the burden on (and risk of visiting) emergency departments. 

Not only do these apps and technologies potentially reduce the need for emergency services, but they can also add efficiency through after-hours consultations and other ‘telehealth’ applications. Examples include apps or technology that allow for urgent, remote consultations to address immediate concerns out of hospital, as well as the technologies that exist in-hospital to promote the care capacity of multiple specialists across the country in urgent care scenarios.

Popular Urgent/Emergency Health Care Apps to Ask Your Doctor About: 

2. Virtual Care Visits & Check-ins per Health Schedule

Whether you have recently been diagnosed, or have been working with an established care practitioner for some time, virtual office visits and check-ins can be a great option for those with reduced mobility or unpredictable flair-ups. Most often, these visits are reserved for consultations that don’t require physical examination. 

Actually, I enjoy how the source article further breaks these visit types into different categories. It talks about how visits may be at the primary care, behavioral health, and/or specialty care levels, and may target diagnoses such as chronic condition checks, virtual psychotherapy sessions, or virtual cardiac rehabilitation. That’s a HUGE chunk of the health market where VHC can be used to assist with virtual care visits.

From the literature, at least where chronic illness is concerned, it is important these ‘visits’ include a mix of in-person and telehealth care, with the intent to promote patient accessibility, convenience, and continuity of care. Often, these support models will be based on a variety of access points, including digital therapeutics and digital health care coaching, plus regular in-person exams and testing. 

Popular Virtual Visit Health Care Apps to Ask Your Doctor About:

3. Semi-Virtual Physician Visits per Health Schedule

We already spoke about a mixture of access points for patient-practitioner virtual health care (VHC), but semi-virtual models focus slightly more (or so it seems to me) on the in-person availability and mobility of the doctor or medical professional who offers check-ups, tests, or diagnoses. Basically, the idea is to offer health care visits wherever is most convenient for the patient. 

Many of us already benefit from in-home visits, but for those of us who don’t, some near-virtual consult opportunities that use digital technologies may help. Remember, the idea here is simply any technology that allows practitioners to work outside of their main-site office, and which improves patient capacity to sustain appointment schedules. 

For example, visits could be part of an established workplace routine, where a medical professional provides care or education for many staff at once, or for instance may involve the initial exam and follow-up by virtual means (instant chat or notification service). 

Popular Semi-Virtual Health Care Apps to Ask Your Doctor About: 

4. Remote Monitoring & Patient Physical Engagement Hardware/Software

As the idea of virtual home health grows in the U.S. (and in my own head!), many patients and practitioners are opting to build a ‘care team’ that includes multiple professionals they may ‘tap into’ when they need to. 

I got pretty excited about this side of VHC, since it includes a ton of areas I’ve been very curious to explore for my own health. Technologies like remote monitoring of chronic and acute illness, and digital engagement tools for patients with doctors. 

From what I hear, this can also include apps that build conversations and connections with other members of their community; from the examples, patients benefit from virtual care giver education, occupational therapy, and even physical or speech therapy right in the comfort of their home. Others gain access to a support network of community members managing similar symptoms or issues.

Popular Remote Monitoring Health Care Apps to Ask Your Doctor About: 

5. Tech-centered “Hospital At-Home” Treatment

With good education and practice surrounding treatment administration, I think a ton of us with chronic illness are keen to take the actual treatment part of our health care into our own hands, from the comfort of our home. With tech-centered home treatment options, our practitioners can be there watching and guiding through video or audio means, or, watch and guide an on-site nurse or medical assistant to administer treatment on their behalf. 

For instance, I read about one case where a chemotherapist calmly communicated directions to an on-site care professional while they administered treatment. Side-effects were watched, and the patient did not have to withstand the ‘ride home’ after several deeply exhaustive procedures.

“At-Home Hospital” Health Care Apps to Ask Your Doctor About:

Virtual Health Care Success Quick Facts and Statistics 2021

As always with any new type of health technology, product, or piece of knowledge, I like to go snooping around for proof that the stuff I’m buying or using has actually worked for other people. With that goal in mind, here are some of the success statistics I found when it comes to virtual health care and chronic illness management in 2021

  1. When compared to usual, in-person care for heart-failure management, VHC (and particularly telemedicine) provides a significant increase to patient quality of life and well-being. (source)
  2. Aside from the high patient satisfaction found in a study of over 5000 patients and almost 150 physicians, VHC may in fact decrease the costs associated with primary care by up to $3.20 USD per patient. (source)
  3. Most virtual care visits are found to be more beneficial when they are coordinated with a known provider (i.e. a medical practitioner the patient has worked with in the past, in person). (source)
  4. About nine million U.S. citizens covered under traditional Medicare relied on telemedicine services in the early months of 2020’s pandemic. (source)
  5. 87% of patients from one study published by Harvard Business Review said they greatly reduced in-person visits with the addition of virtual health care technologies to their health plan. (source)
  6. Per senior-centered health plans, 38% of in-person acute care visits were identified as being easily translatable to a virtual care platform. (source)
  7. In 2019, children with telemedicine access saw a reduction of about one to two hospitalizations or PICU admissions, four fewer days of care outside the home per child-year, and lower rates of serious illness. (source)

Virtual Health Care and Chronic Illness in the United States

Being that I am always online and speaking with others who have questions and who are exploring their own health avenues, I’ve been equally aware for a long time of two main things: that we face a ton of hurdles to appropriate health care as people with chronic illness in the U.S, and that virtual health care provides the opportunity to overcome every one of them!  

5 Patient Hurdles to Chronic Illness Management in the U.S.
  1. Getting to appointments. Whether due to pain, illness, lack of nearby physician, or lack of mobility in general, getting to appointments can be a huge hassle, especially when managing unpredictable symptoms that leave you ‘healthy’ one day, and ‘sick’ the next. 
  2. Appointment frequency. Closely tied to just getting to appointments is the frequency at which many of us with chronic illness require treatment. More often than not, we require more visits than persons with acute or emergent conditions. 
  3. Lack of attention from physicians and medical professionals. Though most physicians are working their hardest to prioritize treatment, many are at their limit with patient yields among other barriers to resources. This overwhelm can often result in reduced capacity for significant and impactful care.  
  4. Isolation and mental illness risk due to chronic illness. A causal link between mental health and physical wellbeing has been drawn many times over in the last decade, and feeling isolated with a chronic illness can often be a main driver of further health deterioration.
  5. Patient compliance. Patients have only a few moments with their doctor, and may be left with a ton of questions about the treatment they’ve been assigned. This can result in imperfect treatment administration, and reduced treatment outcomes.

*note that these hurdles are based on my own experience and research. Personal experiences with chronic illness may vary. 

These hurdles result in a lot of stress for (and on) patients AND practitioners, who must manage four times the amount of visits than those with acute conditions, and who have to manage a wider and wider patient base (with dwindling physician numbers across the U.S. becoming commonplace – particularly for rural or underpopulated areas). 

In-person chronic health care management also happens to be a hugely expensive endeavor for patients AND our government, which often represents up to 90% of total U.S. health care spending! With rising costs, and major increases to patient numbers (50% of all U.S. adults have at least one chronic disease), the gap between health care burden and health care support seems never-ending. 

Adopting virtual health care strategies that have proven to be more cost effective could therefore reduce these barriers. We have seen a ton of success with super-specialists like radiologists or pathologists who already check-in with patients virtually (due to limited numbers), so the jump to virtual chronic illness health care support won’t be – I don’t believe – too far a stretch for the average practitioner.

Of course, I don’t want to ignore the fact that VHC adoption has been a slow-moving process over the last decade. Luckily, with the pandemic forcing the issue and increasing the necessity of remote visits, things like virtual triage and remote patient meetings have become a widely accepted form of VHC within the last year. For instance, outpatient telehealth use (in lieu of in-person office visits) in the U.S. grew 78 times in just two months last year!

So, given that ‘snapshot’ of virtual health care for chronic illness, how can VHC overcome the barriers I listed above?

How Can Virtual Health Care Solutions Help Those with Chronic Illness?

Based on the latest stats, virtual health care and telemedicine apps and applications help chronic illness patients get to appointments, reduce the number of in-person appointments, improve patient-physician relationships, and improve overall mental health of patients thanks to health care community access. How? Here’s my take based on what I’ve read so far:

1. Barrier: Getting to Appointments.

Between ride bookings, making the appointments, rescheduling, and taking time from work and family, the whole process of getting to in-person medical exams and appointments can be a real hassle as it is, and especially so for those who are managing their illness for the first time.

Thankfully, VHC has been shown to effectively remove the burden of travel to and from health care appointments. With patients and rural patients travelling anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to get to even a simple symptom check-in, the idea that many will be able to use their mobile phone to video conference, message, or call their doctor for remote appointments that do not require an exam can save everyone a big chunk of time! 

2. Barrier: Appointment Frequency

Did you know that virtual health care has been able to reduce the number of physician visits required by the patient—and that’s including the visits they host remotely! That means that for those of us with chronic health care conditions or illnesses, we may even see a reduction in the number of times we have to see our specialists and doctors at all, giving us more time to focus on the ways we can take care of ourselves on our own time. 

And while this isn’t pointed out explicitly in the literature, I have a hunch that by reducing the number of appointments patients need when managing chronic health care conditions, virtual health care apps may actually improve our mental health (there’s evidence)! 

I mean, I know I’ve already enjoyed some of the benefits of seeing remote specialists when in-person testing isn’t needed, including more time with my growing family…and less time stressing over my schedule, or how I’ll get to my next appointment. 

3. Barrier: Lack of attention from physicians and medical professionals.

Again, I know the medical professionals who guide us often have our best interests at heart, yet the system in which they work can provide stressors beyond their control. Often, that can translate into barriers between patients and physicians, where physicians are nearly always close to burn-out, and patients are really truly suffering, leaving neither with the sufficient energy, resources, or time to take care of the patient, or their chronic illness. 

By contrast, the platforms I mention above offer all kinds of pathways for physicians to get in touch with patients, and help them regain some of the control over their own health journey. These apps help doctors and patients send resources, chat through messages, and share updates and knowledge, all while the patient can feel heard. 

What’s more, patients like us suddenly have a go-to reference where we can always go and review old advice, questions, and other health care concerns to calm our current situation. This added connection can have a ton of possible benefits, including improved treatment outcomes (which we will talk about in a moment) and improvements to mental wellbeing such as those found here.

4. Barrier: Isolation and mental illness risk due to chronic illness.

Some health care apps focus on building a virtual community of patients AND specialists, which can have major, positive health impacts for everyone involved. For example, the NYC Health & Hospital virtual program, ExpressCare, has built a virtual access community of different health and social supports, as well as developed remote patient monitoring programming. In short, EC provides a great point of access to meet patient needs wherever they are in their health care journey, and can provide contact during high-risk or high-stress moments in the patient’s health journey (which most often occur outside of hospital).

As a result, those of us with mobility issues, who may not benefit from a ton of free social time, are given access to an understanding community who we can go to in times of need. Kind of like how I come to you all with stories of my ups and downs as I continue to manage the symptoms of my own chronic condition. I know I wouldn’t mind closer access to others who I can share some of the more painful health stories with, and who can understand exactly what I am going through. (Checking out LymeSymptomTracker and HealthUnlocked after I’m done writing!).

5. Barrier: Patient compliance and reduced patient health outcomes.

When we have only a set amount of time with physicians, specialists, and other medical professionals, it can often feel like a whirlwind to try and keep track of everything we’re told to do to manage our chronic illness. That’s why modern virtual health care applications focus on keeping track of treatment, providing treatment reminders, and having someone available to answer questions whenever we need! 

By allowing us to better ‘stick’ to their treatment, I would imagine that virtual health care could have a major impact on the capacity for regular treatment to actually improve our ability to take care of ourselves when the doctor (or a family member) isn’t present.

Homework: Talk to Your Doctor and Find a Virtual Health Care App for You!

Alright! Now that you know just as much as I do (or more, smarty pants!) about virtual health care and how it can help those of us with chronic illness, I have a little bit of homework for you! 

As you might have seen, I linked a few VHC apps in the article above. I’m also going to rehash this great list of health care apps from the US PAIN foundation, meant specifically to help those of us with chronic illness:

  1. Branch (Ouchie)
  2. ReLeaf
  3. Pathways Pain Relief
  4. mySymptoms
  5. Curable
  6. Bearable
  7. Health Storylines
  8. Flowly
  9. Wave
Time to get exploring!

Your homework is to check out a few virtual health care or telemedicine apps that target your chronic condition (or generally, your health), and to test them out! TIP: Ask your doctor or physician if they have an app they already use that you can download to get more physician access. 

Most of these apps are free to try, and if you spend even five minutes a day on social media, the extra moment to track your symptoms, touch base with your doctor, or read a new research article on your illness won’t seem too far from your current routine—in fact it might not seem like work at all! 

Then, once you test a few, let me know what you find. I’m always looking for new ways to improve my health journey as I test my own limits, and continue to face the challenges that come with a chronic illness diagnosis. I also want to help contribute to a community who can talk about our health without judgement! 

Finally, I’m excited to find out through you all what else is out there in terms of the big changes happening around health care and accessibility—particularly when it means those of us who rely on walking aids or wheelchairs can go where we want, not where we medically have to be. 

Excited to hear about your experiences, and as always, wishing you as many free moments as you can find, 

All my love,

Lena.

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