Telemedicine has been around more than 100 years, but it is advancing with gains in mobile technology. A study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found no difference in care levels or outcomes using telehealth, notes Jim Prendergast, CEO of Scottsdale-based Healthiest You.
Alan Roga, M.D., founder and CEO of Scottsdale-based Stat Doctors, has seen increased demand from payers, primarily employers and carriers. “The industry will increase from $240 million to $1.9 billion in the next four years,” he says, citing a Towers Watson survey that reports a 68-percent growth year over year.
Prendergast shares that, at a convention about five years ago, “a doctor told me I was hurting the healthcare system. No later than a year later, he apologized to me.”
Many businesses are adding an eHealth program to the healthcare benefit they offer their employees. Limited access to care, escalating cost, and outcomes not consistent with the dollars invested in healthcare are the reasons Dr. Roga sees for the proliferation of eHealth. “As a former department chair and leader of a large ER practice, I realized there was an increasing amount of patients coming to the ER because of lack of access to care, and we were charging people a small fortune. We could leverage technology to drive down the cost, improve outcomes and provide better care.”
Average costs are about $2,000 for an ER visit, $300 for urgent care, and $150 for a primary care office visit. Redirecting some of that to eHealth translates to lower cost. Individual programs differ, some offering the mobile consult for free and some charging a per-call fee, but all provide a benefit to employers in lowering absenteeism — as employees have less need to leave the workplace and spend even more time away waiting in the doctor’s office.
Technology enables telehealth to be more than a phone call or email. Dr. Roga describes his approach as “recreating the doctor-patient encounter technologically” — using video to enable a live interaction between the doctor and patient, including access to stored medical records, and integrating the exchange of information between payers and plan sponsors for payment processing.
MeMD, also Scottsdale-based, uses a secure webcam and a network of national urgent care providers to connect employees with common ailments to local healthcare providers. Founder and CEO John Shufeldt, M.D., J.D., MBA, F.A.C.E.P., estimates that employers providing this on-demand medical care typically see a $400 reduction in annual healthcare costs per employee.
Also, lower healthcare costs can enable the employer to either raise the deductible or increase the co-pay, with a positive impact on the company’s bottom line. “The employee gets 24/7 access to care, via phone, email or webcam, even while on vacation,” notes Prendergast, observing, “The employee feels he has a better plan, since most issues can be handled without paying a co-pay or deductible.” The claims redirection — whereby the employee gets care but no claim is made against the healthcare plan — “makes the plan that much cheaper.”
Says Dr. Roga, “We need ER, urgent care and primary care for continuity of care, but telemedicine is the next step in healthcare.”