Telemedicine as good as a Doctor visit?

Video ConsultationVirtual doctor visits via video conference are starting to go mainstream, with some people putting them on par with a regular trip to the doctor’s office. UnitedHealthcare, announcing that they’ll cover virtual doctor visits through American Well, Doctor on Demand, and NowClinic, is the latest to jump on the telemedicine bandwagon.

While these consultations previously would cost $40-50 per call, United members will only be charged a regular co-pay, making virtual medicine more affordable for more people. Coverage of the virtual visits will only be available only to UnitedHealth’s self-funded customers, as opposed to those with employer-funded plans, but the feature will expand next year to most members, showing just how fast telemedicine is taking off.

Yes, there are some down-sides, such as not being able to see your regular physician, but besides costing less and keeping contagious people out of hospitals and doctors offices where you can catch their illness, virtual visits offer patients the advantage of convenience and easy access. Moms, for example, can get immediate help for their sick child at 3am, or without having to take off from work, and without having to get in the car and drive across town — in bad weather or traffic. Virtual visits can also help hospitals and urgent care centers offload some of their workload so they can focus attention on patients who actually need in-person care.

Telemedicine was once reserved for people in rural areas, to give them access to affordable quality care, but the UnitedHealthcare deals validate the use of telemedicine for a broader audience and will certainly help to drive it into the mainstream. Other health insurers will follow suit as they too learn how telemedicine can substantially lower the costs of health care, especially compared to urgent care or even primary care visits. Today’s telehealth companies have invested in technology to cut most of the overhead that contributes to high health care costs, and physicians at the other end of a video call can easily consult with other doctors, specialists, and even cloud-based systems like IBM’s Watson, with its ability to amass and analyze large databases from medical conditions across the state, nation or globe.

Potential Barriers to Telemedicine

While the UnitedHealthcare announcement will help to accelerate market adoption, others things could inhibit rapid growth. One is patient dissatisfaction, and another is resistance from practitioners who depend on the brick & mortar model.

Savvy telehealth companies know how important it is to avoid missteps that could hurt patient satisfaction, because word gets out quickly. A bigger concern to me is the political power of organizations that see telehealth as a threat to their profits, because they have got laws passed to prevent or slow the trend. In my state, which ranks dead last in many health care measures, the Texas Medical Board voted to limit the practice of telemedicine by “requiring Texas physicians to have an in-person visit with a patient before they can provide healthcare services through telecommunication technologies.”

May 30, 2017 UPDATE: Texas governor signs bill to expand telehealth services, ending a long-running holdout (This is good news for Texans.)

Some doctors argue that separating a patient from her primary care doc online could hurt continuity of care when treating chronic conditions such as diabetes or asthma, so to address that issue UnitedHealthcare’s NowClinic sends transcripts of virtual visits to the patient’s primary care doctors to keep them in the loop. But other telemedicine opponents say it’s impossible to diagnose some routine conditions via the Internet. They stress that you can’t spot strep throat without a swab and culture (at least not yet), and you can’t pinpoint an ear infection without an otoscope, or a urinary-tract infection without a urine sample. Even diagnosing those conditions is becoming easier to do online with the right digital equipment at home, but until then telemedicine practitioners simply refer those cases to family physicians, clinics, or one of the various kiosks in community centers or offices of large employers that include digital weight scales, stethoscopes and otoscopes. (See HealthSpot visits reimbursed by Medicaid!)

No matter the arguments against telemedicine, the consumer convenience and cost savings are just too powerful to derail it, and I think this technology will become mainstream much sooner than most people realize. With my IBM tech background and experience from other industries, I’m surprised that health care has not moved faster. (See If Air Travel Worked Like Health Care for a satirical video comparing the two industries.)

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Related Press Release

American Well® Introduces Telehealth 2.0: Connecting Doctors and Their Patients

BOSTONMay 4, 2015 /PRNewswire/ — Today, at the 20th Annual Telemedicine Meeting & Trade Show in Los AngelesAmerican Well, the nation’s largest telehealth service, unveiled its next generation product line. AW8 reflects a significant expansion in the reach of telehealth: whereas traditionally telehealth connected patients with available doctors to treat urgent care issues, Telehealth 2.0 now allows individual physicians to bring telehealth into their daily practice and use it to care for and follow-up with their own patient panels.

“Eighty percent of healthcare resources are spent on longitudinal care needed by twenty percent of the U.S. population,” said Roy Schoenberg MD, CEO of American Well. “For those patients with chronic conditions, complying with the doctor office follow-up routine is not always easy or even possible. Telehealth 2.0 puts telehealth in every physician’s pocket.  It allows physicians to reach their patients in the home setting or engage other providers where collaborative care is required. It allows physicians to use modern technology, instead of costly office visits, to envelop their patients.”

With its release of the telehealth app for providers, American Well is helping physicians take full advantage of telehealth. Providers can now carry their practice with them – managing tasks such as: scheduling appointments, reviewing records, prescribing, encoding, payment collection, claim submission and record keeping, in addition to the main function of seeing patients live in high-definition video. The mobile app allows physicians to be available to existing or new patients, on their own terms.

To further support the care of homebound and chronic patients, providers can now also review data collected electronically from patients’ home biometrics devices using built-in Apple Health integration. Thoughtful workflow features allow providers to handle scheduled visits, convert unpaid patient communications (i.e. email, text, phone conversations) to reimbursed telehealth visits and offer availability to walk-ins during office and afterhours. New “hunting” functionality allows providers to interchangeably be available for in-person and telehealth visits, without having to commit exclusively to one or the other.

Features of AW8 help to define the new era of Telehealth 2.0:

  • Brand new visit experience supports both on-demand and scheduled healthcare visits; streamlined intake, geo-location, and pharmacy selection experience; and faster, immersive high-definition video.
  • Choice between multiple services, products and programs allows eligible patients to go beyond urgent care and receive richer, diverse healthcare services spanning primary, specialty and allied care.
  • True marketplace for branded clinical services allows trusted health system and provider brands to be appropriately represented, and available to patients within the telehealth ecosystem.
  • Telehealth-enabled devices for use inside clinical settings make it possible for providers to seek on-demand curbside consults from network-affiliated specialists within their clinical network (hospitals, primary care practices, and/or ACO networks).

To learn more, visit the American Well booth #903 at the American Telemedicine Association 2015 Conference and test out this new technology for yourself.

About American Well
American Well, the nation’s largest telehealth service, has delivered healthcare into the homes and workplaces of patients for close to a decade. Serving the nation’s top health systems, health plans, as well as hundreds of national employers, American Well provides a modern healthcare experience by connecting consumers with board-certified healthcare professionals via video over web or mobile. American Well has the most downloaded telehealth app and became the first company to receive accreditation by the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) earlier this year. American Well, Amwell, and Amwell Therapy Associates are trademarks of American Well Corporation in the United States and other countries. All other trademarks used are the property of their respective owners. For more information, visit or follow them on Twitter.

Media Contact:
Catherine Anderson

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SOURCE American Well