Heavily touted as a cost-effective means of delivering quality healthcare to the masses, telemedicine has caught the attention of employers and policy makers alike. Over 70% of employers with 500 or more employees are offering telemedicine as a benefit, according to Mercer’s 2018 National Survey, and the Center for Connected Health Policy reports more than 160 telehealth bills were introduced in 44 states in 2018. By the end of 2020, the global market is projected to surge past $34 billion, up from $6.3 billion in 2016. But is telemedicine truly living up to its promises?
Telehealth is offered through multiple modalities across a variety of care spectrums, including mental health, dermatology, and neurology. By far the most widely available model provides access to primary care for acute care needs via video-facilitated interaction between physician and patient who have never met before. But while many employers are offering this model of telemedicine through vendors like Teledoc, MDLive, Doctor On Demand and others, employees just aren’t using it that much. Utilization is typically reported to be anywhere from 7-18%. With such low utilization to date, the cost savings are meager at best.
Regarding clinical quality, not all telemedicine programs are created equal and reports are mixed. When considering quality, we need to evaluate several factors:
As a physician, I’m watching telemedicine with a discerning eye. While I see great value in providing convenience and improving access for patients, we’ve got some distance to go in the areas of utilization and quality. But through collaboration, focused effort and clinical diligence, I am confident this model of telemedicine will eventually shape up to bring great value in the delivery of quality healthcare. Employers should continue to consider available telemedicine options, evaluate specific models that may effectively help them reach their goals, and implement with a detailed plan of how to effectively drive utilization.