Telemedical treatment has been a tantalizing possibility for many years, for reasons including a failure of health plans to pay for it and too little bandwidth to support it, but those reasons are quickly being trumped by the need for quick, cheap, convenient care.
In fact, according to research by Deloitte, 75 million of 600 million appointments with general practitioners will be via telemedicine channels this year alone.
While one might assume that this influx is coming from traditional primary care practices which are finding their way online, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Instead,a growing number of entrepreneurial startups are delivering primary care via smart phone and tablet, including Doctor on Demand and HealthTap, which offers videoconferences with PCPs, and options like Healthcare Magic and JustAnswer, which offer consumers the opportunity to get written responses to their healthcare queries from doctors.
Primary care doctors going into direct primary care are also joining the primary care telemedicine revolution; a key part of their business is based on making themselves available for consultation through all channels, including Skype/Facetime/Google Hangout meetings.
To date, most of the thinking about telemedicine have been that it’s an add-on service which is far to one side of the standard provision of primary care. However,with so many consumers paying out of pocket for primary care — and virtual visits typically priced far more cheaply than on-site visits — we may see a new paradigm emerge in which victims of high-deductible plans and the uninsured rely completely on telemedical PCPs.
Rather than being merely a new technical development, I believe that the delivery of primary care via telemedical channels is a new form of ongoing primary care delivery.
It will take some work on the part of the telemedicine companies to sustain long-term relationships with patients, notably the use of an EMR to track ongoing care. And telemedicine PCPs will need to develop new approaches to working with other providers smoothly, as coordination of care will remain important. Health IT companies would be wise to consider robust, unified platforms that allow all of this to happen smoothly.
Regardless, the bottom line is that primary care telemedicine isn’t an intriguing sideline, it’s the birth of a new way to think about financing and delivery of care. Let’s see if traditional providers jump in, or if they let the agile new virtual PCP companies take over.