Companies that link patients to physicians via smartphone and tablet technology are gaining popularity among health insurance companies that are seeking a less expensive way to get routine care to consumers via a virtual doctor visit.
The best known of these companies are: Teladoc, Doctor on Demand, American Well and MDLive. They link patients who generally pay between $40 and $50 for consultations typically for routine conditions and ailments via webcam. Patients can see the physicians employed by these companies via smartphone, tablet or desktop computer.
A new report from healthcare market research firm I.H.S. says video consultations will double over the next five years in the primary care market alone. Telehealth vendors are also expanding in the mental health and dermatology areas.
The growth of these firms has been driven recently by expanding insurance coverage.
Most major health insurance companies provide some form of reimbursement for telehealth consultations, which the insurers see as a way to avoid a more expensive doctor’s office visit, trip to an emergency room or urgent care facility if the care is routine enough that it can be handled by web-based video.
UnitedHealth Group, parent of United Healthcare of Illinois, said it is expanding coverage of telehealth consultations to 20 million people enrolled in the company’s fully insured plans for this year. UnitedHealth has partnerships with Doctor On Demand, American Well and UnitedHealth’s own Optum NowClinic to provide “video-based virtual visits in 47 states.”
“There’s no doubt payers are focused on virtual consultations,” I.H.S medical technology analyst Roeen Roashan says. “They are really pushing it.”
I.H.S. projects there will be cumulative annual growth of nearly 25% a year over the next five years to 5.4 million video consultations between primary care providers and their patients by 2020 from this year’s 2 million video consultations.
But it’s not just health insurance companies buying into what telehealth vendors are selling.
Employers like Starbucks, Dell, Marriott and BP are increasingly expanding their health benefit packages to include some insurance for telehealth consultations.
Health plans see a less expensive way for patients to get high quality care from a physician and the potential to avoid a more expensive trip to a hospital emergency room. It also may be a way to get a quick answer from a doctor about an existing treatment regimen.
“New account wins continue at a record pace, as we’ve already signed over 500 new clients across all of our market segments during this selling season,” Teladoc said last fall in its third-quarter earnings statement. “We are executing on our business plan and our sales pipeline is full.”
Telehealth consultations tend to be conducted with a doctor that has a contract with one of the major vendors though the companies are selling their platform and partnering with more local health systems across the country.
Should telehealth vendors be allowed to treat patients without knowledge of a primary care doctor or some kind of referral relationship?