More than half of executives plan to grow their telehealth program, creating an ‘Amazon effect’ in healthcare

Expectations for telehealth have changed dramatically in just three short years.

In 2014, a survey of healthcare executives by the law firm Foley & Lardner showed that 87% of respondents did not expect patients to be using telemedicine within three years. A new survey released by the firm on Wednesday indicates the technology has become an integral offering.

More than half of the senior healthcare executives that responded to this year’s survey said they were currently growing or expanding their telehealth program, compared to just 34% of respondents who said a telehealth program was under consideration or in development in 2014. That's on top of more than three-quarters that said they already offer or plan to offer telemedicine services.

A recent survey by the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) and KLAS Research showed a similar willingness to expand existing programs.

RELATED: With the launch of a new asthma app, Nemours looks to bring all its digital tools onto a single platform by 2019

So, what’s changed in three years? For one, healthcare leaders are far less concerned about whether telehealth will net a return on investment and instead see the platform as a way to expand their reach, build patient satisfaction and remain competitive in an increasingly digital industry.

Although 46% of respondents said their organization tracks ROI from telemedicine, 42% said they don't.

“A lot of hospitals are realizing this isn’t a financial suck,” Nathaniel Lacktman, a partner at Foley & Lardner who chairs the firm’s telemedicine team, told FierceHealthcare. “This is a big benefit and you cannot overestimate the allure of patient satisfaction.”

As the market tightens and competition intensifies, several major hospital systems are likely to emerge as institutions where patients can get most of their care online before being funneled into in-person treatment or surgery.

“That will have a potentially deleterious impact on local hospitals,” Lacktman said. “It’s the Amazon effect. You don’t need to go to the local store anymore when you can get it the next day at a competitive price."

"Instead of reducing their price, providers are offering expertise," he added. 

RELATED: Telehealth expansion takes a step forward with Senate’s passage of CHRONIC Care Act

Those opportunities could extend overseas. Just 22% of respondents said they currently offer telemedicine services internationally, but 32% said they were interested. And 84% said they expect to see international expansion within the next three years.

Given that the U.S. is often viewed as the gold standard for medical care, international programs are an “open sea of opportunity,” Lacktman says, particularly in wealthy areas of the world, like China and the Middle East, where medical care is less accessible.

“Organizations are very hungry for these opportunities,” he added.