Virtual care for employees, while convenient, needs to focus beyond urgent care needs. Quality care begins with healthcare providers gaining trust, which is difficult to build through video. What must happen for virtual care to move to a relationship-driven model?

There’s no question that connecting with your healthcare provider on your computer, smartphone or tablet makes getting care more convenient. Patients can more easily fit appointments into their busy schedules through telehealth, and they’re more likely to show up for their appointments. 

This phenomenon isn’t solely a result of the pandemic. According to research from McKinsey & Company, 76% of patients report being interested in using digital health services in the future.

Virtual care will and should play an integral role in the healthcare journey for many patients. But it must be rooted in preventive care to truly move the needle in building a better healthcare system. That system is built on a foundation of patient-provider trust, which is critical in order to enable the education and empowerment necessary to get Americans to take better care of themselves – like eating better, sleeping more and getting some exercise. And building trust takes time. 

Virtual Care for Employees Focuses Only on Urgent Care Needs Today

Today’s typical telehealth service is built to respond to acute needs, or sick visits – like a sinus infection, sore throat or sprained ankle. The industry wants to increase telehealth’s relevance, but most solutions aren’t designed to help healthcare providers develop those long-lasting relationships from a primary care perspective. It’s more like doctor roulette … and very similar to urgent care. Whichever provider is available when the patient is sick, takes the call. 

There’s no expectation that the patient will ever see that specific provider again, so the conversation is superficial and focused exclusively on the need of the moment. There’s no effort to learn more about the patient’s lifestyle, family history or any other healthcare needs they may have. But all of those inputs are critical to truly understanding the patient and helping them better manage their overall healthcare so that lingering or unknown issues don’t build into something more serious.

Let’s look at a typical scenario: Sarah has a lingering cough. She schedules a telehealth visit, meets a physician assistant for the first time, finds out she has seasonal allergies, gets a prescription and logs off the video chat. She’ll likely never see or hear from that physician’s assistant again. 

The missing parts: Sarah didn’t tell the physician’s assistant her cough follows days after she exercises (not enough time to get into the weeds during the quick visit) and she’s gained 20 pounds in the last year (but she wants to set goals to lose the weight). And on top of that, she’s in the dark about her cholesterol and blood glucose levels being high, and she doesn’t know her cough stems from asthma.

Virtual Care for Employees Must Be Built on Better Patient Relationships

Quality care begins with healthcare providers gaining their patients’ trust. Before patients will engage, they must have confidence that their doctor is committed to improving their health. Almost 75% of patients said that a stronger relationship and more time spent with their doctor at each visit would help them better manage their health, according to Marathon Health’s Employee and Employer Healthcare Survey. 

A trust-based relationship is the foundation of effective healthcare, and that’s not the goal of today’s virtual care solutions. And face it, it’s difficult to build a relationship through video. We all learned that as we worked to keep our friendships alive – or create new ones – during the pandemic. So how do we turn virtual care on its head to truly make an impact in improving patient lives? It’s a question the Marathon Health team asked, and why we’re focused on designing a virtual solution, called Anywhere. It not only checks the convenient box, but also the healthcare-impact box.

Virtual care must be rooted in a relationship-driven model, which means the care team has to be dedicated – they can’t be a revolving door like today’s solutions. Remote patient monitoring tools have to be included, and the virtual team needs to have the ability to send the patient for labs at a nearby trusted facility and those results have to be sent back to the care team and housed in the patient record. 

The virtual care teams have to provide primary care and sick care, behavioral health counseling, wellness services and health coaching, chronic care management through connected devices, along with medication and lab services. Oh, and the entire experience has to be accessible through patient-friendly web and mobile tools. It’s virtual coordinated care like no other that’s personalized to each employee to truly focus on improving health outcomes.

For many who live in rural areas or whose medical conditions don’t allow them to travel to a physical health center, virtual care may be the only option. Virtual care with a focus on prevention gives these patients exceptional care with a dedicated primary care provider – not the doctor roulette scenario I mentioned above. Ideally, care will include a face-to-face component, but we all know that’s not always a reality. 

To actually help patients make the change to get healthy, our care teams, including our virtual providers, focus on influencing lifestyle and behavior through a technique called motivational inquiry and appreciative inquiry. We actively listen to patients without judgment to truly figure out where they are in their healthcare journey, what their goals are, and how we can help based on what they want or need. After all, most people with chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, want to get healthy, but they need to feel like they’re in control of their health to take the next step. They don’t want to take orders from a doctor or a nurse. 

Virtual care must have dedicated care teams who are helping patients unlock the reasons why they want to make a change and discover what will motivate them. It has to be based on what is important to each patient. One patient may want to lose weight so she has more energy to play with her grandkids, another may want to get healthy to lower his blood pressure. Once we understand the why, our care teams help patients develop a personal plan of action and goals to get healthy. It all comes back to building the patient’s trust, which isn’t offered through traditional telemedicine solutions.

Ultimately, our North Star focuses on improving patient outcomes, whether employees choose to see our care teams in person or virtually. Our mission is to transform the lives of the people we’re serving. It’s up to us to put employees in a position to be healthier, to have a lower cost of care, and to simply feel better. 

Want to Learn More? Check out our Blog: What Should an Employee Virtual Healthcare Solution Include


  • Jeff Wells

    Jeff Wells, MD, the CEO and co-founder of Marathon, a modern health company that specializes in delivering advanced independent primary care for employers throughout its network of onsite, Network and virtual health centers. The company has delivered more than $1 billion in healthcare savings to date for its clients, which includes Cargill, Tyson Foods, The City of Indianapolis and OneAmerica. Wells, who earned his MD in internal medicine from Indiana University, was president and co-founder of OurHealth, which merged with Marathon Health in January 2020. He is the former director of Indiana’s Office of Medicaid Policy and Planning.

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