Virtual Healthcare - Here to Stay?

  • PwC Australia’s Consumer Health Survey, conducted in March 2022, assessed attitudes to virtual healthcare.
  • While consumers are increasingly positive about their access to virtual care and the benefits it affords them, clinicians remain sceptical. 
  • Virtual care models could be especially important for diverse and vulnerable populations.

For all the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic radically altered people’s daily lives, not all changes were unwelcome. Virtual health is the standout example. Forced to stay home for their personal safety, consumers embraced telehealth, video and other forms of digital care in record numbers. But as the pandemic plodded on, Delta disappeared and the country began opening up, people’s desire for virtual care seemed to be in decline. 

Even at this ‘low’ point, the desire for virtual health was far greater than it had been ever before, and as a new variant reared its head, virtual healthcare usage jumped up once more. Eleven months on from our last survey in May, 2021, what do people want? A return to the clinic or to pick up the phone? As the results from our Virtual Health Survey show, it depends on who you ask.

The desire for virtual care

In 2022, consumers are even more committed in their desire for virtual care. While 44 percent were likely or very likely to use virtual care last year, that number has risen 6 percentage points to 50 percent of all respondents. For those aged 18-44 positive sentiment has increased by eight percentage points, and for couples with dependents, by an even greater 9 percentage points.

When clinicians were asked about virtual care in 2021, they saw the benefits, but expressed reservations about the suitability of virtual delivery for certain services. In 2022, they remain cautious. While happy to consult with video/phone to discuss symptoms and provide advice or follow up pathology results, they are less interested in reviewing medication virtually or showing patients how to take diagnostic measurements.

And when it comes to using virtual health to receive vital signs or perform remote monitoring, clinicians are demonstrably out of sync with patients. More than 43 percent of consumers would rather take their vital signs themselves at home, sending them on to their providers. Many clinicians, however, believe that the reliability of patient supplied data would be unfit for purpose and question whether funding structures can work well for remote patient monitoring.

Virtual care, real benefits

A growing number of consumers acknowledge the benefits of virtual care. Nearly three quarters surveyed said they could see benefits, up five percent from May the previous year. Nearly half perceive virtual healthcare options as saving them time (an increase of 10 percent). Just over a third like the convenience of accessing care from home, and just under a third believe it gives them timely access. A quarter believes it saves them money. None of these top four benefits are likely pandemic-dependent.

Clinicians are also aware that virtual care offers benefits, particularly in delivering care to patients in the comfort of their surroundings (63 percent), providing quick answers to simple questions (48 percent), collaborating with primary carers and patients’ family members (41 percent) and in providing care in a timely manner (41 percent). However, they have reservations around clinical misdiagnosis due to missing patient information (48 percent), privacy and confidentiality of data (43 percent), difficulties for non-technologically fluent patients (45 percent) and the ability of current funding models to subsidise virtual care services (42 percent).

Equity and access

Interestingly, findings from the survey highlighted areas of accessibility that should be given consideration by health leaders. Firstly, more consumers report themselves open to receiving virtual care from medical providers they’ve never met before. While only 30 percent were comfortable or very comfortable with this scenario in May 2021, it has since risen to 36 percent. Given the need to rebalance workforces, address backlogs and offer respite to exhausted frontline workers, this finding could offer a way to use doctors in lower demand locales as virtual support in areas of higher demand. Indeed, in rural areas, where clinicians are in need, consumers showed even greater comfort levels, which rose by up to 12 percentage points - double that of consumers as a whole.

Secondly, culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) and vulnerable populations report greater investment in virtual healthcare models. Sixty-three percent of CALD consumers report preferring to receive health information online or via email (compared to 48 percent of all consumers). More than 55 percent prefer to regularly measure vital statistics at home (compared to 43 percent), and when deciding who to see about health issues, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (64 percent), CALD (62 percent) and LGBTIQ+ (59 percent) consumers like to research their options online first. With the high interest and uptake of virtual health options by these groups, there is a clear opportunity to design accessible virtual care models for their inclusivity.

The right prescription 

Going forward, health leaders should focus on the experiences of both consumers and clinicians when designing and implementing hybrid models of care. Across those surveyed, distinct preferences from consumers of specific demographics, psychographics and geographies indicate opportunities to further increase equity, access and comfort.

For further insights, download the Virtual Health Survey report.

To evaluate your organisation's current virtual health maturity and assess readiness for the future try PwC Australia’s virtual health maturity diagnostic self-assessment.