The largest health insurer in U.S. (United Healthcare) says telemedicine will soon be on par with regular doctor office visits. They're predicting that video is as good as a brick-and-mortar experience, even in medicine.
Experts have predicted for decades that medical care via video chat would come, but wasn’t until recently that forward-thinking physicians started taking telemedicine seriously. UHC says it will cover virtual doctor visits offered through NowClinic, Doctor on Demand, and American Well.
These platforms connect patients with thousands of doctors via video chat. Consultations typically cost $40 to $50, but now that United is covering these visits, members will only have to pay their usual co-pay, making virtual medicine much more affordable for more people.
For now, these virtual visits will be available only to UnitedHealth’s self-funded customers, but the feature will expand to most members by next year. Healthcare industry analysts say United’s embrace of doctor visits by video is a major step for the healthcare industry.
The goal is to give people, especially those in rural areas, access to affordable quality care. Research shows that when the technology is in place, telemedicine can put quality health care where it might not have been able to reach. By offering telemedicine services, health insurers stand to substantially lower their costs, because virtual visits are significantly cheaper than urgent care or even primary care visits.
Much as online retailers did to brick-and-mortar shopping, telehealth companies have used technology to eliminate most of the overhead that contributes to the high cost of healthcare. Newer insurers like Oscar, as well as established ones like WellPoint and some BlueCross BlueShield plans have also adopted telemedicine programs in recent years.
Another contributing factor to the move toward telemedicine is the Affordable Care Act. The Affordable Care Act brought many more people into a healthcare system already facing a shortage of primary care physicians. Virtual visits can help hospitals and urgent care centers offload some of their more easily treated cases in order to focus on patients who really need in-person care. Telemedicine will only take off with insurers’ support if patients actually trust their insurance companies, which far too many Americans do not.
There will be those who view what United is doing as an attempt to cut costs at the expense of more personalized care. Doctor on Demand app has been downloaded 1 million times in 18 months
The biggest users are working mothers, who have lots of questions about their kids’ health but can’t take a day off of work to bring them to the doctor. With virtual visits, they have access to one of 1,400 licensed physicians, who can provide them with a diagnosis and a prescription all by video.
Around 92 percent of cases on Doctor on Demand require no in-person follow up. Some insurers are now working with large hospital systems like Cleveland Clinic and Massachusetts General, which have been using their technology to treat even serious conditions like cancer and heart disease.