Free EMR Newsletter Want to receive the latest news on EMR, Meaningful Use, ARRA and Healthcare IT sent straight to your email? Join thousands of healthcare pros who subscribe to EMR and HIPAA for FREE!!

The Future Of Telemedicine Doesn’t Depend On Health Plans Anymore

Posted on December 6, 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.

For as long as I can remember, the growth of telemedicine depended largely on overcoming two obstacles: bandwidth and reimbursement. Now, both are on the verge of melting away.

One, the availability of broadband, has largely been addressed, though there are certainly areas of the US where broadband is harder to get than it should be. Having lived through a time when the very idea of widely available consumer broadband blew our minds, it’s amazing to say this, but we’ve largely solved the problem in the United States.

The other, the willingness of insurers to pay for telemedicine services, is still something of an issue and will be for a while. However, it won’t stay that way for too much longer in my opinion.

Yes, over the short term it still matters whether a telemedicine visit is going to be funded by a payer –after all, if a clinician is going to deliver services somebody has to pay for their time. But there are good reasons why this will not continue to be an issue.

For one thing, as the direct-to-consumer models have demonstrated, patients are increasingly willing to pay for telemedical care out-of-pocket. Customers of sites like HealthTap and Teladoc won’t pay top dollar for such services, but it seems apparent that they’re willing to engage with and stay interested in solving certain problems this way (such as, for example, getting a personal illness triaged and treated without having to skip work the next day).

Another way telemedicine services have changed, from what I can see, is that health systems and hospitals are beginning to integrate it with their other service lines as a routine part of delivering care. Virtual consults are no longer this “weird” thing they do on the side, but a standard approach to addressing common health problems, especially chronic illness.

Then, of course, there’s the most important factor taking control of telemedicine away from health plans: the need to use it to achieve population health management goals. While its use is still a little bit lopsided at present, as healthcare organizations aren’t sure how to optimize telehealth initiatives, eventually they’ll get the formula right, and that will include using it as a way of tying together a seamless value-based delivery network.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that without the reach, flexibility and low cost of telehealth delivery, building out population health management schemes might be almost impossible in the future. Having specialists available to address urgent matters and say, for example, rural areas will be critical on the one hand, while making specialists need for chronic care (such as endocrinologists) accessible to unwell urban patients with travel concerns.

Despite the growing adoption of telemedicine by providers, it may be 5 to 10 years or so before it has its fullest impact, a period during which health plans gradually accept that the growth of this technology isn’t up to them anymore. But the day will without a doubt arise soon enough that “telemedicine” is just known as medicine.

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.