When the world began adapting to the new normal of socially distanced realities a couple of years back, the healthtech industry followed suit by ramping up the provision of virtual care. Also known as virtual health or telemedicine, virtual care refers to the ways in which providers remotely interact with patients or use technology to improve the care experience. Now, approximately 3 years since the start of the pandemic, its popularity continues to grow.
Data taken from our 2021 Cigna 360 Wellbeing Survey1 shows that virtual health usage for mental health care has increased by an encouraging 89%, ahead of other options like General Practitioner support, hospital assessments, and check-ups. Despite this, some degree of uncertainty still persists when it comes to virtual mental health care, such as perceptions of it not being effective or even a ‘real’ form of care. If your organisation is still on the fence or has just started to introduce virtual mental health care, understanding the differences between virtual and in-person care may just be what is needed to help maximise the benefits of each.
The pros of virtual mental health care
When we talk about virtual care, the immediate benefits that come to mind tend to be its convenience and flexibility. This is because bringing care online eliminates the need for the patient and the care provider to be in the same place at the same time. Instead, access to care can now be made available anytime, anywhere, as long as there is some form of internet connection.
- Greater access to care
For the majority of us, this greater access to care translates to a higher quality of care stemming from having more control over our care preferences. For organisations, having greater access means that it can be that much easier to offer care for employees living in more remote communities or for expatriate employees who are more comfortable conversing in their own languages.
- Greater comfort
Having greater comfort goes hand-in-hand with having greater flexibility across our care options. In this case, patients are more likely to feel at ease utilising virtual mental health services from preferred locations like their homes. Not only can this take away the stressfulness of commutes, but it can also help ensure that the patients feel safe enough to broach topics that they might have otherwise felt too uncomfortable to talk about in the clinic.
- New angles of understanding
In-person care tends to limit providers to the conversations and perceptions formed within a specific timeframe and clinic setting. On the other hand, virtual care allows providers to tap into a more dynamic environment of the patient’s choosing. The effect of this difference has a crucial impact on both parties. For patients, they can more easily let their guard down to engage with their care provider. For care providers, they are able to get a glimpse of their patient’s home life, see them interact with others in their natural habitat, and use those observations to inform a much deeper level of understanding and support.
Perhaps the most crucial of what virtual care has to offer is a greater degree of privacy and confidentiality. This is especially pertinent for employees who may be too affected by existing stigma within their communities to seek the help that they need. Being able to access mental health care virtually is one way to provide them with the assurance that they can use the services anonymously and without judgement.
To put it simply, virtual care provides greater flexibility, comfort, and control to make treatment far less cumbersome for most. In turn, there is a decrease in the overall stress levels that come with accessing and receiving care - which is a huge part of mental health care in the first place. Employees may therefore find that it is easier to get a head start on their personal mental health care, making it that much more likely for them to receive the support they need early on. Organisations also have much to gain from this, as healthier and happier employees often translate to a reduction of unnecessary health care expenditure, a less burdened societal health care system, and ultimately, a more sustainable care framework for their employees.
The pros of in-person mental health care
At this point, you may find yourself wondering if there is still a need to continue offering in-person care if virtual care already checks so many boxes. If so, you are not alone. The truth is that some things simply cannot be done or provided over video, and this is where in-person care comes in to fill that gap.
While most of us tend to think of our homes as a place of comfort, it is also important to remember that others may associate theirs with more negative memories and people instead. For those people, the clinic represents a neutral location where they can safely express their thoughts and feelings without the fear of being overheard, judged, or intruded upon.
- Better physical understanding and support
Additionally, receiving care at a clinic rather than at home comes with the benefit of having physical support from a trusted care provider. For instance, providers have the option to comfort patients in person by handing them tissues or placing a hand on their shoulder - things that they would not be able to do virtually. Providers can also connect more deeply with their patients via non-verbal means by picking up on their body language and other physical cues. In contrast, 76% of therapists have said that treating patients remotely can be more challenging than doing so in person as they must be extra-vigilant for said cues2.
At the end of the day, the most effective type of care really just comes down to our personal preferences. Employees who have already gotten used to more traditional forms of in-person care may prefer to stick with it over virtual therapy, no matter the benefits offered by the latter. The next step here should then be to understand our employee’s mental health needs and devise a framework that will allow them to easily access the care they require.
Over to you
Virtual health care has the potential to fundamentally improve the way we access care. As Singapore continues to reopen, virtual care looks set to remain a viable option for patients in the future. Yet, even with its increasing popularity, it should not be the only form of care that we should be focusing on. The Medical Director of Cigna Europe, Dr Peter Mills, notes that “just as the internet didn’t stop us from shopping in-store, we will never have a completely virtual health system. Nor do we want one.” Instead, the opportunity that we have in front of us is to work towards a hybrid of both virtual and in-person care to “improve access to health advice and monitoring, while simultaneously reducing the cadence of in-clinic appointments.” With that in mind, what are your plans to make the most of both virtual and in-person health care for your employees?
1. Cigna. (2021). 2021 Cigna 360 Well-Being Survey: On the Road to Recovery.
2. American Psychological Association. (2020). Psychologists embrace telehealth to prevent the spread of COVID-19.