E-Patient Update: Naughty, Naughty Telehealth Users

Posted on March 17, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she’s served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Wow. I mean, wow. I can’t believe the article I just read, in otherwise-savvy Wired magazine yet, arguing that patients who access telemedicine services are self-indulgent and, well, sorta stupid.

Calling it the “Uber-ization” of healthcare, writer Megan Molteni (@MeganMolteni on Twitter) argues that telemedicine will only survive if people use it “responsibly” – apparently because people are currently accessing care via direct-to-consumer services because their favorite online gambling site was offline for system maintenance.

In making this claim, Molteni cites new research from RAND, published in the journal Health Affairs, which looked at the impact direct-to-consumer telemedicine services had on overall healthcare costs. But the piece goes from acknowledging that this model might not reduce costs in all cases to attacking e-patients like myself – and that’s where I got a bit steamed.

In structuring the piece, the writer seems to suggest that if consumer behavior doesn’t save the health insurance industry money, we need to stop being so gosh-darned assertive about getting help with our health. Then it goes further, arguing that we should just for-Pete’s-sake control ourselves (apparently we’re either hypochondriacs, attention-seekers or terminally bored) and just step away from the computer.  Why can’t we just say no?

First, the facts

Before we take this on, let’s take a look at the journal article which the writer drew upon as a primary source and see what assertions it makes. Facts first.

In the abstract, the authors note that demand for direct-to-consumer telehealth services is growing rapidly, and has the potential to save money by replacing physician office and emergency department trips with virtual visits.

To see whether this might be the case, the authors gathered commercial claims data over 300,000 patients covered by CalPERS Blue Shield, which began covering telehealth services in April 2012. During the next 18 months, 2,943 of those 300,000 enrollees came down with a respiratory infection, one third of which sought services from direct-to-consumer telehealth company Teladoc.

Once they had their data in hand, the research looked at patterns of care utilization and spending levels for treatment of acute respiratory illnesses.

After completing the analysis, the authors found that 12% of direct-to-consumer telehealth visits replaced visits to other providers, while the remaining 88% represented new care utilization. Net annual spending on acute respiratory illness grew $45 per telehealth users, researchers found.

The researchers concluded that because it offers more convenient access, direct-to-consumer telehealth may increase utilization and healthcare spending.

It should be noted that Molteri’s article doesn’t look at whether increased utilization was excessive or ineffective. It doesn’t ask whether patients who accessed telemedical care had different outcomes than those who didn’t and if those new patients saved the health system money because of the interventions that wouldn’t have happened without telehealth. It doesn’t address whether patients who used telehealth in addition to face-to-face care were actually sicker than those who didn’t, or had other co-existing conditions which affected overall costs. It just notes a pattern for a single group of patients diagnosed with a single condition.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that we don’t know whether Teladoc’s performance is better or worse than that of rivals like HealthTap, MDLive and Doctor on Demand. And if there are meaningful differences, that would be important.  But the piece doesn’t take this on either.

So in summary, all we know is that using one provider for one condition, a health plan paid a little bit more for some patients’ care when they had a telemedicine consult.

Consumer indictment

But in Molteri’s analysis, the study offers nothing less than an indictment of consumers who use these services. “For telehealth to fully deliver on its promise, people have to start treating their health care less like an Uber you summon in a thunderstorm,” she asserts, while citing no evidence that people do in fact access such services too casually.

All told, the piece suggests that the people are accessing telehealth for trivial reasons such as, I don’t know, kicks, or as an easy way to find an online buddy. Really? Give me a break. Even when it’s delivered online, people seek care out because they need it, not because they’re lazy or, as I noted above, stupid.

To be as fair as I can be, the article does note that direct-to-consumer healthcare models have unique flaws, particularly a lack of integration with patients’ ongoing care. It also concedes that some providers (such as the VA, which has slashed costs with its telehealth program) are using the technology effectively.

It also notes that telemedicine can do more to meet its potential if it’s used to manage chronic disease and engage people in preventive care. “Telehealth has to be integrated fully into a total care system,” said Mario Gutierrez, executive director of the Center for Connected Health Policy, who spoke with Molteri. As a patient with multiple chronic conditions, I couldn’t agree more. Anything that makes care access easier on one of my bad days is a winner in my book.

Ultimately, though, the author unfortunately bases her article on the assumption that the real problem here is patients accessing care. Not the gaps in the system that prompt such usage. Not the unavailability of primary care in some settings. Not the 15-minute fly-by medical visits that perforce leave issues unaddressed. Not even the larger issues in controlling healthcare costs. No, it’s e-patients like me who use telehealth to meet unmet needs.

Please. I can’t even.