Are Virtual Doctor Visits a Solution for Rising Healthcare Costs?

As the price of healthcare and health insurance becomes more and more unsustainable, the market has been developing promising solutions, many of which take advantage of the emerging technologies in health IT. As health IT solutions become practical and affordable, we are seeing better adoption rates among patients, doctors and insurers.

Online consults or telemedicine are one of the most exciting advances in the market. These solutions address rising costs, improve access to care and improve the healthcare experience for patients.

Rising Costs

Primary care visits can run $75 or more in an insurance plan. Without insurance, these visits cost even more. What we are seeing in the online world is ‘visits’ ranging from $0 to $40. Certainly the definition of ‘visit’ is not the same in the virtual world, but many believe these are just as effective as the real thing. Common stats cited are that more than 50 percent of primary care visits could have been avoided completely with a quick phone call. We also know that 70 percent of ER visits are potentially avoidable. So there are tremendous costs advantages online versus a $100 real visit or a $1,500 ER visit. Clearly, insurers will adopt many of these programs just from a cost perspective. For the uninsured, these low cost virtual visits
are truly a game-changer.

Improved Access

One of the goals of Health Reform has been to provide insurance to the uninsured. If the Supreme Court upholds the mandate, many people will be concerned about the healthcare system’s ability to handle these new patients. Granted many of the 50 million uninsured people are already in the system, but chiefly via the ER. The real upside to insuring this crowd is to get them much needed primary care. But the concern is we don’t have the access. We have not been producing primary care doctors at the rates required, essentially because the economics are upside down. If we don’t pay doctors well enough for primary care, they won’t be there. But some elements of Health Reform redirect dollars to primary care which is great news. But online and telephonic consults will be the disrupting force that cures our access problems.

The promise here is truly amazing. I see a comparison to developing countries that never invested in a traditional landline phone system and went straight to wireless. They didn’t waste the money on infrastructure and are now poised to reap the benefits of cheap, available communications. Likewise with healthcare, third world and developing countries cannot afford to invest in brick and mortar health facilities, but now anyone with a cell phone can get access to basic medical advice from the best doctors around the world. So, improved access to care is going to really help us in the U.S., but the global impacts will be far reaching.

Improving the Healthcare Experience

Healthcare in general is going “retail”. By that I mean, more and more employers are dropping coverage. And the Affordable Care Act – the so-called “Obamacare” legislation — will force many Americans to shop for their own coverage, albeit with various forms of financial assistance. So, when people look for their own insurance plan, they will also be shopping for healthcare services the way they shop for other retail goods and services. Thus, the entire healthcare delivery system, including physicians, needs to understand this new customer and treat them accordingly. Who will engage the customer and win his business? Most evidence suggests that people LOVE the ability to access medical advice on a real-time basis with providers they trust. A quick phone call to put a mother at ease when her newborn runs a fever. A quick consult that ends in a prescription for an antibiotic, as opposed to 5 hours in an emergency room. We have the technology now, so let’s deploy it.

We recognize that virtual visits cannot possibly replace the in-person experience, but the improved access and lower costs will lead to significantly improved satisfaction among patients. And this is where insurers and doctors will benefit. Ultimately, in order to reform, the healthcare industry has to listen to its retail customers. And its customers are starting to say “hey, we like this virtual model”.

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