A prescription for preference: What patients want from a hybrid, virtual health model

  • Virtual health models became the norm during COVID out of necessity for the safe provision and access of care.

  • A new report by PwC Australia shows that receptiveness to virtual care is mixed among consumers.

  • To develop a hybrid virtual/in-person model, health providers will need to consider customer segments, needs and experience levels.

A seismic shift occurred in healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual health, existing on the fringe of mainstream healthcare delivery for decades, was thrust into the limelight as patients and clinicians looked for ways to safely continue to access and deliver care. 

Not surprisingly, there was an exponential increase in the number of health care services delivered virtually, rising in Australia’s first-wave alone to over 35 percent.1

As some health services began to reopen for more routine care throughout 2020, in-person activity grew and virtual volume fell. But while lower, it has not disappeared. There is an expectation among certain patient segments that they will be able to continue to access care virtually beyond the shift into COVID-normal. 

For others, however, in-person care will be preferred. What then will this mean for consumers (that is, patients and caregivers) going forward and will it match up with what clinicians desire? A new report by PwC, the inaugural PwC Australian Virtual Health Consumer Survey, asked over 1,000 Australians what they wanted when it comes to accessing health care. 

Most people still want in-person care

Although more people are using virtual healthcare than ever before, the study found that 80 percent of respondents still prefer to see a clinician in-person. 

Given the pandemic response required virtual health models to be rapidly developed, this figure perhaps reflects that in some instances, the accelerated development may have prioritised functionality ahead of consumer experience. Some virtual solutions for instance, have been quite immature, such as focusing primarily on telehealth solutions.  

Potentially, there is also an element of screen-fatigue at play in this statistic. The last year and a half has led to a virtual-first approach to all aspects of life — be they personal, or business. A desire for more human-to-human interactions is understandable as society approaches a new COVID-normal.

Those with dependents, and the young, like virtual care more 

The survey also found that those with dependents are significantly more likely to prefer virtual health options. Time-poor, often trying to manage multiple competing work and care priorities and juggling the money and opportunity cost of having to take time out to attend a physical appointment, virtual attendance appears to be a welcome option for this group. 

Over 47 percent of respondents strongly prefer to have a consultation with their doctor through telephone or video, and over 52 percent of respondents’ prefer to communicate with their health care provider via SMS or email. The ability to access care in a convenient and time sensitive way is a paramount need with this cohort.

Those aged 25-34 years — a cohort very comfortable with technology — also had a statistically significant stronger preference towards accessing care virtually. Over 57 percent of this group prefers to use remote monitoring to report and monitor vital statistics and over 58 percent prefer to communicate with their health provider via SMS or email.*

Consumers believe there are benefits to virtual care

Although consumers’ preference to access care virtually varies, there are perceived benefits of accessing care in this way. The top four perceived benefits of accessing care virtually are: 

  1. It saves time (38 percent)

  2. It’s convenient (32 percent)

  3. It’s more timely (29 percent)

  4. It saves money (25 percent) 

Interestingly, over a third of respondents did not perceive any benefits to virtual health. This may be driven by a lack of awareness of the availability of virtual health services, limited understanding of what it means to access care virtually, lack of maturity of some virtual health solutions or poor perception driven by prior experience or behavioural factors. 

Key considerations

Regardless of whether the healthy glow of virtual health remains post-pandemic, the report highlights the need to bring consumers on the journey. In practice, this will mean building hybrid models of care that seamlessly integrate both virtual and in-person offerings into one model. Criteria should be developed to triage and schedule consumers for the most appropriate type of care delivery. For instance, by considering diagnoses, symptoms, visit type (follow up, post operative, annual physical), patient and clinician choice. The decision criteria must be understood by consumers in order to build trust and confidence.

Consumer segmentation will be important to understanding people’s motivations, needs and desires, and should include key demographics and behavioural, motivational, attitudinal and lifestyle considerations. This will allow health services to identify who is most likely to be interested in virtual health and how best to communicate key benefits to encourage sustained adoption. 

Finally, it will be important to measure, monitor and improve the consumer experience of virtual health. patient reported outcomes measures (PROMS), patient reported experience measures (PREMS) and net promoter scores (NPS) should be regularly assessed to determine what changes are needed to improve the consumer experience. 

Patient’s orders

While the rapid adoption of virtual healthcare has been driven by necessity, rather than choice, many have enjoyed the alternative care experience. Some consumers appreciated the ease with which they could access healthcare from home, while others missed the in-person care they were used to. 

Going forward, it will be imperative that health providers take the time to understand their customers.  A thoughtful approach to change management around virtual health will be paramount. The virtual health landscape continues to evolve, and consumer sentiment will likely adjust with it. For providers, ensuring that the expectations of consumers are met, and that the trust between patient and clinician remains strong, will be imperative to ensuring the health of the industry.

*Surprisingly, there was no statistically significant difference in the likelihood of rural/regional respondents to adopt care virtually (via video/phone, remote monitoring or email/SMS) compared to urban respondents.

Download the PwC Australian Virtual Health Consumer Survey for the full results of the consumer survey. If you’d like to better understand your organisation's virtual health maturity, complete Virtual Health Maturity Diagnostic tool self assessment.


  1. https://coh.centre.uq.edu.au/telehealth-and-coronavirus-medicare-benefits-schedule-mbs-activity-australia