Imagine a new restaurant that's getting rave reviews...but few people have actually eaten there. That's kind of the scenario that currently exists for a revolutionary idea known as virtual healthcare.

What is virtual healthcare? It includes any type of healthcare services that are technology-enabled and are provided independently of location, such as video encounters with physicians, remote biometric tracking, and mobile apps for health management.

A recent Accenture (NYSE:ACN) survey found that 78% of respondents would be interested in receiving healthcare virtually. However, only 21% had actually received virtual healthcare of any kind. Why is this idea such a big deal -- but not yet big enough to engage more Americans?

Female patient taking blood pressure in videoconference with doctor

Image source: Getty Images.

Why Americans are slow to join the revolution

One major reason why some Americans haven't tried virtual healthcare is that they don't know what it is. The Accenture survey found that 27% of respondents had never heard of virtual healthcare. Another 36% had heard of virtual healthcare, but knew nothing about it.

Of those who were more familiar with virtual healthcare, just 5% said that they knew a lot about it. The other 32% responded that they only knew a little. It seems that the classic line from the movie Cool Hand Luke sums the issue up pretty well: "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."

More communication about the benefits of virtual healthcare is needed, especially from physicians and healthcare payers. Around 44% of consumers surveyed by Accenture said that they would be more likely to try virtual healthcare if encouraged to do so by a physician. Roughly 31% of respondents said that they would be motivated if their health plans encouraged them.

Virtual healthcare opportunities

Accenture estimates that using virtual healthcare for annual patient visits could save more than $7 billion worth of primary care physician (PCP) time each year. This approach wouldn't eliminate in-office visits, but augment them.

The scenario envisioned by Accenture would have the patient wear sensors and use digital weighing scales prior to visiting the physician. Prior to the in-office visit, data from these devices would be sent to the electronic health record (EHR) system used by the physician. The patient would also use a secure portal to answer standard questions. A diagnostic artificial intelligence system would then suggest clinical options to the physician prior to the in-person exam.

There are other ways virtual healthcare could generate financial benefits. Accenture projects that using technology to enable patients to better manage chronic conditions could save $2 billion annually. Using electronic visits when in-person exams aren't necessary could provide another $300 million annually in savings.

Stocks poised to profit

Virtual healthcare could be huge for several types of healthcare companies.

Masimo (NASDAQ:MASI) stands out as one potential winner; the company is a leader in the development of non-invasive patient-monitoring technologies. Masimo's pulse-oximetry solutions currently generate most of the company's revenue. However, Masimo launched a new non-invasive total hemoglobin monitoring technology in 2016 that could significantly expand growth opportunities.

Physicians will need EHR systems that effectively support virtual healthcare. The top provider of cloud-based software solutions for healthcare professionals, athenahealth (NASDAQ:ATHN), should be in position to gain market share as a result. The company already has an technological ecosystem for virtual healthcare. It integrates with multiple telehealth applications, including Chiron Health's telemedicine platform and SnapMD's virtual care management systems.

Perhaps an even greater beneficiary from virtual healthcare, though, will be the payer community. As the largest health insurer in the U.S., UnitedHealth Group (NYSE:UNH) should especially profit as more Americans adopt virtual healthcare. UnitedHealth is already a pioneer among health insurers when it comes to virtual healthcare; the company provides a mobile app that allows patients to view a list of virtual care providers with which it has contracted. UnitedHealth Group's Optum segment operates NowClinic, which allows patients online access to secure, real-time interactions with a network of physicians.

Patients should benefit from virtual healthcare's convenience. Healthcare professionals should benefit from the technology's efficiency. And forward-thinking investors could profit as well, with stocks like Masimo, athenahealth, and UnitedHealth Group that are poised to be part of the virtual healthcare revolution.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.