8 Reasons Patients Are Flocking to Virtual Medical Care

The pandemic introduced millions of people to virtual care, and now it’s likely here to stay. Here’s why. 

People having a virtual doctor visit

In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up, virtual care appointments went from a novelty to a critical part of healthcare for millions of Americans.

For every virtual visit in February 2020, there were 78 in April 2020, according to a report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. The numbers leveled off after that — but more than a year later, virtual care still made up 13% to 17% of all outpatient visits.

If you haven’t had a virtual care appointment, you might be wondering how it works. The answer is simple: Rather than driving to your doctor’s office, you speak to a doctor through a video chat. You can use your smartphone or computer, and you generally get an appointment right away.

“Virtual care is here to stay,” says Aditi U. Joshi, M.D. She’s a digital health consultant and emergency physician in Philadelphia and an expert for the healthcare consulting company Inlightened.

It turns out people really like having quick access to doctors virtually. Here are eight reasons.

Virtual care helps you stay on top of your health

If you have a chronic condition such as high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes, your doctor may want to check in regularly to talk about your medication adherence, lifestyle habits, and experience with at-home monitors.

Your doctor may also want to touch base after a change in your treatment plan, just to answer any questions you might have. “Much of this can be done through virtual care,” says Dr. Joshi.

Virtual care may improve your care

Virtual care makes it easier to plan check-ins, and that can be a big win for people managing chronic conditions, according to a 2021 study published in JMIR Cardio.

The study found that people still saw their doctor during the usual in-office visits.

Virtual care provides anonymity

“With virtual care, people often feel more comfortable discussing things that seem taboo,” says Dr. Joshi. She cites sexually transmitted diseases and substance use disorders as examples.

And virtual care seems to work well for mental health. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, teletherapy was proving to be just as effective as in-person talk therapy. This is according to research collected by the American Psychological Association. In fact, people were more likely to stick with their care if it was virtual.

Virtual care eliminates unnecessary office visits

Virtual care may mean the difference between staying comfortable at home and rushing to the doctor’s office only to wait in the lobby.

In a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researchers found that the average time spent on an urgent care visit was 1 hour, 11 minutes. But without travel and waiting rooms to deal with, virtual care visits took less than 10 minutes.

Even with less time invested, you’re still getting the care you deserve. “During a video visit, the examination techniques are the exact ones you’d receive in the office,” says Suneet Singh, M.D., medical director of the digital health site CareHive and assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School. “Other times, the only difference is that your provider will walk you through the steps of performing a self-examination.”

For instance, the doctor might show you where to press on your abdomen and ask if you feel any pain. If you truly need to see someone in person, the virtual care doctor will let you know.

Virtual care generally costs less

Many insurance plans charge lower copayments for virtual care than they do for in-office visits, says Dr. Singh.

Partly that’s because virtual care is just more cost-effective. The study cited above from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also found that the average virtual visit costs $160 less than an in-person visit. That means virtual visits save you both time and money. “As a result, patients are much more likely to engage with their doctor more often,” says Dr. Singh.

Virtual care reduces the spread of infectious conditions

Virtual care keeps sick people from having to come into the office — and less exposure to germs helps everyone.

Research even suggests that for infections, virtual doctors can get everything they need through video chat. According to a study from the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, among people who used virtual care for an upper respiratory infection, acute pharyngotonsillitis, acute sinusitis, urinary tract infection, or acute diarrhea, 90% of them received the same care they would get in person.

Virtual care allows you to see specialists who are far away

If you live in a rural area, you may not have the same access to physicians that you would have if you lived in a big city, points out Dr. Joshi. But virtual care might allow you to consult with clinicians who are an airplane ride away.

Some in-person doctors also rely on virtual care. Many hospitals don’t have around-the-clock specialty services such as stroke neurologists, says Dr. Joshi. But telestroke technology allows hospitals without a stroke neurologist to consult with one who can examine the patient over video.

A study published in JAMA Neurology found that people who received stroke care at hospitals that offered telestroke capacity fared better than those treated at hospitals without telestroke.

Virtual care improves health outcomes

“Healthcare is best when it’s proactive, not reactive,” says Dr. Singh. “Patients are in a much better position to discuss symptoms earlier in their disease course.” In addition, increased time with your doctor allows for better screening and detection of problems, before they become severe.

Virtual care can’t solve everything: If your doctor needs to do something like a throat culture, or if you suspect a concussion or broken bone, you’ll likely need to be seen in person, says Dr. Joshi. But for many coughs, rashes, and pains—as well as urinary tract infections or diarrhea—you can get all the care you need online.

Additional sources
Virtual care data: McKinsey & Company (2021). “Telehealth: A Quarter-Trillion-Dollar Post-COVID-19 Reality?”
Virtual care and hypertension: JMIR Cardio (2021). “Efficacy of Telemedicine in Hypertension Care Through Home Blood Pressure Monitoring and Videoconferencing: Randomized Controlled Trial”
Teletherapy is as effective as in-person therapy: American Psychological Association (2020). “How Well Is Telepsychology Working?”
Urgent care vs. virtual care: Journal of Patient Experience (2021). “Evaluation of Patient Experience During Virtual and In-Person Urgent Care Visits: Time and Cost Analysis”
Treating infectious conditions with virtual care: International Journal of infectious Diseases (2021). “Antibiotic Stewardship in Direct-to-Consumer Telemedicine Consultations Leads to High Adherence to Best Practice Guidelines and a Low Prescription Rate”
Telestroke in practice: JAMA Neurology (2021). “Reperfusion Treatment and Stroke Outcomes in Hospitals With Telestroke Capacity”