At the start of 2020, individuals and organizations heavily invested in the point-of-care channel had good reason for optimism. In the wake of allegations leveled at the end of 2017 that Outcome Health had misled and defrauded many of its pharma clients, the space cleaned up its act, affirming a range of audit and verification practices designed to ensure accountability. There was every indication that point of care had the infrastructure in place to foster the magnitude of growth its earliest boosters had long envisioned.

As a result, marketers were all-in on the channel’s value proposition. “Going back 10 or 12 years when we first started our company, point of care was a line item on an out-of-home budget for most brands,” says Mesmerize president and chief revenue officer Craig Mait. “Now it has its own huge budget line. It’s impressive how far we’ve come.”

Mark Goethals, chief marketing officer of CheckedUp, agrees, adding, “Point of care was riding really high. People were using [the channel] for what it does best, which is deliver timely information in a space that’s as sacred and important as the exam room. Before all this, anyway.”

The “all this” to which Goethals refers, of course, is COVID-19. When the pandemic prompted broad shutdowns across the United States in mid-March, there was a sense it would drag down the point-of-care channel’s momentum with it. The doomsday scenario had physician offices, pharmacies and other point-of-care venues transforming into ghost towns overnight, with all the meticulously curated content and messaging running on screens in an endless, unseen loop.

It has been an incredibly trying time for any number of reasons, point-of-care network execs agree. “I have described it as being asked to play chess while your head’s being held underwater,” says PatientPoint founder and CEO Mike Collette. “The lockdowns deprived everyone in our business of being able to operate the way we usually do, but we were still expected to make these really important strategic decisions. We were trying to plan for things that were up in the air and changing every day.”

At the same time, the cataclysmic effect some observers of the space predicted never truly came to pass. Clearly many nonessential doctor’s visits were postponed, and it’s safe to conclude that a high percentage of the messaging set to display on screens in, say, dental practices went unviewed. To that point, a study conducted by ZS in late April, when COVID-19 was ravaging the New York metropolitan area and Seattle, found that patient visit volumes had declined between 40 and 50%, depending on therapeutic category.

Ultimately, point-of-care venues never became the desolate, untrafficked landscape some had envisioned. Why? Because many patients with chronic conditions can’t simply decide to postpone care, even if they are so inclined. And because the diseases and aches and infections endemic to being human don’t bend to the whims of a pandemic, nor to most any other potentially care-altering situation.

“Cancer doesn’t stop for anything,” PatientPoint chief client officer Linda Ruschau says plainly.

So while primary-care and pediatrics practices might have seen declines in patient visits at the height (or heights) of the pandemic, most oncology practices continued to treat patients regardless of the ebb and flow of coronavirus infection in their immediate vicinity. Goethals reports that CheckedUp’s dermatology and ophthalmology clients remained open during the worst of the crisis, while Mesmerize, which acquired Pharmacy Health Network last summer, saw pharmacy visits “go up through the roof – not just to pick up prescriptions, but to do day-to-day shopping and utilize pharmacists as sounding boards. There was a sense that physicians might be too busy for those kinds of conversations,” Mait says.

Overgeneralizations based on location also factored into play. “Look, we’re all human beings. We make our assessments based on what’s happening immediately around us,” Ruschau explains. “Where are most people in our industry based? The northeast. What region was hardest hit at first? The northeast. If you were sitting in New York or New Jersey, you might have thought that everything everywhere was shut down, but that really wasn’t the case.”

Mitigating factors notwithstanding, few point-of-care network execs or marketing partners dispute that the channel absorbed its share of body blows during the first three months of the pandemic. Given that concern over a second wave of infection during the fall remains high – never mind that the first wave was never truly brought to heel – organizations with a vested interest in point-of-care content and technology have acted with the urgency a crisis of this breadth and intensity demands.

Necessity proved the mother of reinvention. Not surprisingly, given the point-of-care channel’s gradual shift over the last half-decade towards digital content, telehealth became a focus for many of the category’s network-minded players. The goal in each instance: To replicate as faithfully as possible the patient and physician experience within virtual settings.

CheckedUp debuted its bespoke Virtual Visits platform, designed to ease the telemedicine transition for specialty-care practices and their patients, in late April. Outcome Health’s Virtual Waiting Room, offering up marketing and educational content to replace the “please wait” screen at the start of telehealth consults, followed at the end of May. PatientPoint came to market two weeks later with Point of Care Anywhere, showcasing education and brand messaging at various junctures during the telehealth visit.

As for the point-of-care print players, they adjusted to a reality in which their time-tested waiting- and exam-room handouts were suddenly – and, in retrospect, a bit unfairly – deemed radioactive. Meredith’s Targeted Media Health and CoverWrap Communications (which partners with Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith and other magazine publishers on cover-wrap ad programs) asked readers to take home anything they touch. Remedy Health Media served up sealed printed materials that, in theory, allayed the fears of would-be perusers.

Health Monitor Network mailed its education guides directly to individuals in its condition-specific patient database. InStep Health, formerly known as RxEDGE Media Network, added QR codes to its in-office information, which allowed interested parties to access the material without physically touching it.

Mesmerize took a different approach, focusing its pivot more on the company’s human resources than its technological ones. It recast members of its field teams as customer-service reps and charged them with contacting client offices and offering assistance as needed. Many took Mesmerize up on that offer in the early weeks of the pandemic, especially for trusted COVID-19-related content (from the Centers for Disease Control, the Ad Council and others) to be displayed on digital wallboards.

“As it turns out, we were in close contact with physician offices at least as often as we were previously, and probably more,” Mait notes.

That close contact has become more the rule than the exception as the country slowly – and, depending on who you ask, haphazardly – reopens. Many physician’s offices are approaching their pre-pandemic patient volume, even as they have been forced to alter workflows and layouts to accommodate the continued need for social distancing.

“Clearly there’s pent-up demand for appointments,” says Goethals. He notes that this is a very encouraging development for CheckedUp and its clients, though perhaps not for him personally: “My dermatologist can’t see me until September 21.”

Point-of-care leaders aren’t approaching the reopening process with anything resembling bravado. They recognize the challenges in front of them and say they’re doing everything in their power to help coronavirus- and recession-battered practices resume regular operations. “The doctor’s office remains vital to the health and wellness of patients and society as a whole,” Mait says. “That’s where the focus is for everyone.”

But to a person, those execs believe the lessons learned and the pivots executed during the first three months of the pandemic set up the point-of-care channel for a brighter future. Central to those assessments is the inroads many of the space’s players made into telemedicine, which itself had its coming-out party during the first half of the year.

Dr. Adnaan Sheriff, a physician who works in a primary-care practice located in Amherst, New York, describes the last few months as “an eye-opener” in terms of how HCPs can use technology. He doesn’t believe that telehealth will retain all of its COVID-era gains, because insurance companies still reimburse for virtual visits at lower rates than they do in-person ones. But he believes a point-of-care mix that incorporates numerous elements of telemedicine will benefit physicians and patients alike.

“With telehealth, it was a sink-or-swim situation for us. What we’ve learned will improve the overall level of care,” Sheriff says, pointing to its expanded use in follow-ups around mental health, diabetes and musculo-skeletal injuries.

As a result, Sheriff and his office peers no longer view “regular” visits and telehealth consults through an either/or lens. The practice will continue to use PatientPoint’s Point of Care Anywhere platform for telehealth and the company’s Interact platform in its exam rooms.

Indeed, such platforms could prove even more useful as patients continue to return to physician’s offices. Over the next year, the waiting room for many practices is as likely to be the patient’s car as it is the waiting room itself. Companies that make it easy for doctors to efficiently transition to virtual points of care, either independent of in-person visits or in conjunction with them, could find themselves top-of-mind options – both for HCPs and the brand marketers who crave more (virtual) face time with them and their patients.

Which means that, somewhat counterintuitively, the COVID-19 pandemic might be remembered by point-of-care devotees as a triggering incident, one that forced change on a business that has historically been hesitant to embrace it. “One of the things we’ve learned is that we have to build products much more flexibly, so that they can accommodate all patient behaviors and patient-flow processes,” Collette says. “You have to adapt. Don’t try to change the wind; just adjust your sails.”