Is Telemedicine About to Change How We Visit the Doctor?

Cardiology Review® Online, April 2015, Volume 31, Issue 2

UnitedHealth, the nation's largest health insurance company, recently announced a partnership with 3 telemedicine companies to cover video-based doctor visits in the same way it covers in-person visits.

UnitedHealth, the nation’s largest health insurance company, announced a partnership with 3 telemedicine companies to cover video-based doctor visits in the same way it covers in-person visits (Wired, April 30, 2015). UnitedHealth said it will cover virtual doctor visits offered by NowClinic, Doctor on Demand, and American Well, 3 platforms that connect patients with thousands of doctors (but not the patient’s usual doctor) via video chat. Consultations have cost $40 to $50 but now United will allow patients to pay their co-pays.

Right now the telemedicine visits are allowed only for UnitedHealth’s self-funded customers, but the feature will expand to most members by next year. The new policy is not mandated, so patients are not forced to use it.

UnitedHealth says the goal is to give people access to affordable, quality care, especially those who live in rural areas. The telemedicine providers said the new policy validates their approach to medicine. Adam Jackon, CEO of Doctor on Demand, says the app for their service has been downloaded 1 million times in 18 months. “Now that we’re part of United, it’s like, ‘OK, United stuck their neck out and vetted these guys.’”

Insurers like UnitedHealth stand to lower their costs because virtual visits are significantly cheaper than urgent care or 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,” Wired notes.

Doctor on Demand reports that the service’s biggest users are working mothers who have questions about their kids’ health but can’t take a day off work to bring them to the doctor. The service gives them access to 1 of 1400 licensed physicians who can provide them with a diagnosis and prescription by video. Company statistics show that about 92% of cases require no in-person follow up.

This type of telemedicine is only the beginning, says the CEO of American Well. That company has already been working with large hospital systems like Massachusetts General and Cleveland Clinic, which have been using their technology to treat even serious conditions like cancer and heart disease. American Well is hoping to someday connect patients to their own doctors.