Alternative care sites won’t make a difference unless these 2 priorities aren’t considered

Alternative care sites — defined as those outside a traditional doctor’s office — could potentially give millions of Americans access to more convenient and equitable healthcare, according to a report recently released by Deloitte

But that fantasy will only come true if alternative care sites build diverse care teams and prioritize care continuity, according to Dr. Jay Bhatt, a practicing physician and managing director at Deloitte.

Alternative care sites, such as retail clinics and virtual visits, promise to meet patients where they are, and they have become increasingly popular since the pandemic. The report pointed out that the option to get a vaccination at the Walgreens down the street or talk with a physician from the comfort of your living room is attractive to many patients who have been left behind or historically mistreated by the healthcare system — such as rural residents, people of color and those with low income.

In fact, across all races and ethnicities, nearly two-thirds of consumers who participated in Deloitte’s survey said they would use virtual visits for preventive care. And nearly three-fourths of respondents with Medicaid or health insurance exchange plans said they would also receive care virtually.

In order to actually reach more patients with alternative care sites, providers must develop diverse care teams, Dr. Bhatt said. He thinks it would be unwise to ignore the fact that patients will almost always be most comfortable receiving care from clinicians who look like them.

“Having diverse and empathetic care teams that reflect the communities they serve will help consumers build and sustain trust,” he said. “If you meet community members where they live, work and play, they will feel more comfortable.”

There are a few different examples of what this could look like, such as deploying community-based care teams to give in-home vaccinations and flu shots, mobile preventive care clinics in underserved neighborhoods, or mental health group therapy sessions held at a community center like a church.

When providers build trust with their patients, they can reach better outcomes through shared decision making and understanding, Dr. Bhatt pointed out.

“Health equity moves at the speed of trust, and sometimes it can take a long time to build that trust,” he said. “It often happens during targeted moments of interaction in places where people feel that they’re heard and that they’re comfortable.”

But for alternative care sites to actually move the needle in terms of providing long-term health benefits for underserved communities, providers will also need to invest in the technology and resources needed to ensure care continuity, according to Dr. Bhatt.

This means that alternative care sites must have strong data management capabilities so that they can access patients’ health data when they receive care, as well as be able to transfer it to a different provider if the patient should they need other follow-up care. If the care handoff is not handled smoothly or there are gaps in care, that could lead patients to distrust the healthcare system even further, Dr. Bhatt pointed out.

He said it’s imperative for alternative care sites to work toward seamless interactions with other providers, especially for patients who have chronic conditions or may otherwise require more complicated care.

Photo: elenabs, Getty Images