6 essential steps to closing the digital health disconnect

Tanya Albert Henry , Contributing News Writer

More than $100 billion in venture funding has been invested in digital health companies since 2010, much of that money pouring in over the past three years as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed telehealth to the forefront.

Protecting telehealth

Comprehensive telehealth reform is critical to the future of health care. The AMA is fighting for legislation to permanently remove restrictions on telehealth coverage and payment.

Yet there’s been minimal progress in addressing health care access, quality, outcomes, affordability and equity as promising new digital health tools come into the health care arena.

In other words, the U.S. health system is still scratching the surface in achieving the fullpotential of digitally enabled care. A report from the AMA and Manatt Health aims to help close the chasm between the transformative potential of digital health and the reality of its impact so far.

The report—“Future of Health: Closing the Digital Health Disconnect: A Blueprint for Optimizing Digitally Enabled Care” (PDF)—draws on the insights of interviews with more than 40 leaders of physician practices, health systems, digital health companies, venture funds, employers and health plans.

The AMA Future of Health Report includes pillars for optimizing digitally enabled care, stakeholder opportunities and examples of organizations that implemented care models that leverage digital care and illustrate several of the foundational pillars.

“When equitably designed and thoughtfully integrated, digital health tools can effectively augment and enhance care,” said AMA President Jack Resneck Jr., MD. “Yet often, digital health products exist in silos and risk additional fragmentation, higher costs and diminished care experiences. Optimizing the full potential of digitally enabled care requires a collaborative effort and the blueprint offered by the AMA outlines opportunities for physicians and other stakeholders to move in partnership toward improving the health of the nation.”

The report builds on the AMA and Manatt’s earlier “Return on Health” report that provided a framework to articulate the value of digitally enabled care, including how it can increase the overall health and generate positive impact for patients, clinicians, payors and society.

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Six pillars to build upon

The report includes these six foundational pillars to fully integrate in-person and virtual care models that hybridize care delivery based on clinical appropriateness and other factors such as convenience, cost and equity.

Build for patients, physicians and clinicians. Whether it is a digital health company, large health system, federally qualified health center, physician practice or someone else, digitally enabled care models should be built using human-centered design approaches that put patient and physician needs first and regulatory and billing requirements second. Technology platforms should be simple for patients, physicians and clinicians.

Design with an equity lens. It’s critical to focus on patients’ different circumstances, including age, gender, race, language and other social determinants of health and ensure that digital tools are used as a bridge to more equitable care. The AMA In Full Health Learning & Action Community to Advance Equitable Health Innovation outlines principles that should underlie such efforts.

Recenter care on the patient-physician relationship. Virtual care companies over the past decade have sold their product to large, self-insured employers who then offer services to employees. Health plans have also partnered with these companies. The services have been largely disconnected from patients’ regular care. An established relationship with a primary care physician is essential to early disease detection and treatment, so it is critical to reemphasize the primacy of the patient-physician relationship to ensure care is optimally managed and coordinated.

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Improve and adopt payment models that encourage high-value care. Physicians and other health professionals need to know that payment models will continue to support digital health modalities. Kaiser Permanente is one example of a health system that has fully embraced digitally enabled care.

Create technologies and policies that reduce fragmentation. Digitally enabled care models need to be coordinated with one another, including across virtual and brick-and-mortar care settings. Policy makers need to develop, refine and enforce information sharing rules.

Scale evidence-based models quickly. Today, speed of scale is often tied to misaligned financial incentive and there are few incentives or forums to share pilot outcomes. Organizations can build on each other’s successes if they have the data, knowledge and real-world research finding. Building care models in collaboration with interested stakeholders may accelerate adoption.

The AMA will be developing a showcase for more digitally enabled care case studies, along with guidance on how to navigate pain points such as interoperability and payment options for integrating new technology. If you want get involved in this work or share a case study, email the AMA’s digital health team.

Learn more about the AMA’s digital health leadership through initiatives such as the AMA Physician Innovation Network and the digital health implementation playbook series.

Telehealth is critical to the future of health care, which is why it’s an essential component of the AMA Recovery Plan for America’s Physicians.