A Missed Opportunity For Telemedicine Vendors

Posted on June 29, 2018 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.

Today, most direct-to-consumer telemedicine companies operate on a very simple model.

You pay for a visit up front. You talk to the doctor via video, the doctor issues as a prescription if needed and you sign off. Thanks to the availability of e-prescribing options, it’s likely your medication will be waiting for you when you get to the pharmacy.

In my experience, the whole process often takes 45 minutes or less. This beats the heck out of having to wait in line at an urgent care center or worse, the emergency department.

But what about caring for chronic illnesses that can’t be managed by a drive-by virtual visit? Can telemedicine vendors play a role here? Maybe so.

We already know that combining telemedicine with remote monitoring devices can be very effective. In fact, some health systems have gone all-in on virtual chronic care management.

One fascinating example is the $54 million Mercy Virtual Care Center, which describes itself as a “hospital without beds.” The Center, which has a few hundred employees, monitors more than 3,800 remote patients; sponsors a telehealth stroke program offering neurology services to EDs nationwide; manages a team of virtual hospitalists caring for patient around-the-clock using virtual visit tools; and runs Mercy SafeWatch, which the Center says is the largest single-hub electronic intensive care unit in the U.S.

Another example of such hospital-based programs is Intermountain Healthcare’s ConnectCare Pro, which brings together 35 telehealth programs and more than 500 clinicians. Its purpose is to supplement existing staffers and offer specialized services in rural communities where some of the services aren’t available.

Given the success of programs that maintain complex patients remotely, I think a private telemedicine company managing chronic care services might work as well. While hospitals have financial reasons to keep such care in-house, I believe an outside vendor could profit in other ways. That’s especially the case given the emergence of wearable trackers and smartwatches, which are far cheaper than the specialized tools needed in the past.

One likely buyer for this service would be health plans.

I’ve heard some complain publicly that in essence, telemedicine coverage just encourages patients to access care more often, which defeats the purpose of using it to lower healthcare costs. However, if an outside vendor offered to manage patients with chronic illnesses, it might be a more attractive proposition.

After all, health plans are understandably wringing their hands over the staggering cost of maintaining the health of millions of diabetics. In 2017, for example, the average medical expense for people diagnosed with diabetes was about $16,750 per year, with $9,600 due to diabetes. If health plans could lay the cost off to a specialized telemedicine vendor, some real savings might be possible.

Of course, being a telemedicine-based chronic care management company would be far different than offering direct-to-consumer telemedicine services on an occasional basis. The vendor would have to have comprehensive health data management tools, an army of case managers, tight relationships with clinicians and a boatload of remote monitoring devices on hand. None of this would come cheaply.

Still, while I haven’t fully run the numbers, my guess is that this could be a sustainable business model. It’s worth a try.