Using digital health tech is a new normal for U.S. consumers, including Seniors, found in the 2018 digital health consumer survey from Deloitte. The title of the report, “Consumers are on board with virtual health options,” summarizes the bullish outlook for telehealth.

That’s the consumer-demand side of the equation. But the tagline begs the supply side question: “Can the health care system deliver?”

For a decade or longer, we’ve noted the slow uptake of telehealth and digital health tools among healthcare providers. But the consumer pressures, along with evidence-based self-service options for health – both for “care” and for wellness, fitness and prevention – bring us to this inflection point for virtual health.

Deloitte defines “virtual health” as enabling continuous, connected care via digital and telecommunication technologies. This includes patient-facing applications like video visits, remote monitoring, asynchronous visits, and medication adherence, among other applications.

While Millennials are more likely to current use digital health tools compared with older Americans, Seniors’ killer-app for digital health is ePrescribing, refilling prescriptions, used by nearly one-half of older people. This is roughly equal to patients across all age cohorts in the study.

One in five seniors is monitoring health issues via technologies, which include by definition websites, mobile apps, digital assistants, personal medical devices, or fitness monitors.

Among consumers who use digital technology to track health, the use of digital assistants such as Amazon Echo/Alexa, Echo Dot, or Google Home, is growing. 81% of Millennials who track health via tech have called on a digital assistant to monitor health; and 44% of Seniors have done so.

Note that 57% of Seniors who use tech to track health have used a digital assistant to receive alerts for medication.

Deloitte surveyed 4,530 U.S. adults in February and March 2018 for this research, conducted in English and Spanish. The study defines Millennials as those born between 1982 and 1997, Generation X as those born between 1965 and 1981, Baby Boomers as those born between 1946 and 1964, and Seniors as those born before 1946.

Health Populi’s Hot Points:  At this inflection point where patients and providers are coming together for virtual health, the third chart shows the gap between customer service levels expected by patients-as-consumers.

There’s a telling data point in this study which found that patients managing chronic conditions tend to be satisfied with virtual visits they’ve experienced. One hypothesis here is that people dealing with diseases appreciate the ability to get care outside of office hours, in more convenient times and settings. These are the experienced patients, who know about long waits in doctors’ ante-rooms, stressfully anticipating lab test results, and queueing up at the drugstore for prescription drug refills.

What’s perhaps most encouraging on the demand side is that seniors are keen to use technology for future health care needs. More older people have signed on to social networks to keep in touch with friends and grandchildren, and are using smarter phones and tablets. More would like to use tech to access and transmit personal health information to their doctors, to monitor health issues, along with health and fitness improvement goals.

The design challenges, which are suggested in the third experience chart, are evident. Over time, provider workflows and patient life-flows will teach us what we need to know to improve the experience for both sides of the clinical conversation. Being mindful of those learnings, and iteratively re-designing the lessons into the patient and clinician journeys, will help ease people into virtual health care as a new normal.

This is important beyond satisfying consumer demand. To forge a sustainable, high-performing health care system for the longer run, nudging people toward lower-cost settings that can deliver on quality is a necessity. A study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine showed consumers’ growing use of urgent care centers replacing some emergency room visits for low-acuity conditions. This demonstrates that patients can develop and flex new health consumer muscles making rational decisions to opt for new sites of care that make sense based on their perceived health care needs, preferences and personal health economies.

The gap between health consumers and clinicians remains, as Deloitte found earlier this year, covered here in Health Populi. Those providers who meet consumers’ demands for convenient, quality care will be seen relevant in patients’ lives and daily life-flows — from Millennial to Senior.