Companies like Teladoc, MDLive, and Boston-based American Well, which Kolowich used, offer 24/7 access to doctors, who see patients via webcam for common, acute problems that don’t require emergency or ongoing care. That includes colds, coughs, rashes, diarrhea, allergies, and other problems.
Though the number of companies offering such services is not certain, the American Telemedicine Association estimates that as many as 500,000 patients will see a doctor via webcam this year, and that number is rising. A recent HIMSS Analytics report found that 46% of more than 400 hospitals and doctor practices surveyed reported already using some form of telemedicine, most commonly videoconferencing. Dozens of hospitals and insurers are embracing it, with the number growing rapidly.
Walgreens is also embracing the technology. It expects to reach about half the country by the end of the year with a new telemedicine service that lets people see doctors for minor ailments without leaving the home or office. The nation’s largest drugstore chain is expanding a smartphone application it started testing last December to tablets and personal computers and plans to make it available in 25 states. The growth comes as major insurers UnitedHealth Group and Anthem prepare to expand their own non-emergency telemedicine services to about 40 million more people by next year.
The consulting firm Deloitte has predicted that out of an average 600 million general practitioner appointments in the U.S. and Canada this year, up to 75 million could be e-visits. Even if only 30% to 40% of office visits are replaced by e-visits, that could make up a $50 to $60 billion market.
Companies often charge a set fee per virtual visit. American Well and MDLive, for example, charge $49. Some companies offer group plans and subscription services. Your insurance company may reimburse you for the cost.
Insurance coverage was a major barrier a few years ago, but today, many of the major payers are now the ones providing the support for the expansion of such services. But Medicare does not cover video visits unless they’re conducted at a doctor’s office, a hospital, or a rural health clinic, which limits their convenience. Medicaid, on the other hand, does reimburse for some telemedicine services, including virtual visits, in 46 states. Right now, most users include professionals working for companies that pay for the service, he says. Most telehealth companies do not provide pediatric appointments; Teladoc is one exception.
Besides convenience, other reasons may explain the rise in e-visit demand. The Association of American Medical Colleges has warned that barring a dramatic change, there will be a shortage of more than 130,600 doctors by 2025. That could mean longer waits for an appointment. In addition, virtual visits cost less. Teladoc reports on its web site that without remote doctor visits or teleconferencing, patients say they would have gone to an emergency room, urgent care clinic, or seen a primary care doctor or specialist — all pricier options.
It seems clear that healthcare consumers are getting more comfortable with the idea of virtualizing at least some of their medical care.