Texas providers see new direct-to-consumer business opportunities in the wake of expanded telehealth law

Several health systems in Texas are exploring direct-to-consumer telemedicine offerings following passage of a new law that provides physicians more leeway to treat patients they haven’t seen previously.

The new state law, signed by the governor in May, aligns Texas with the rest of the country by allowing physicians to see patients via video conference without a prior in-person interaction. The legislation, which came in the wake of a testy legal battle between Teledoc and the Texas Medical Board, was a distinct victory for some of the largest consumer telehealth companies, opening up a new market in the state.

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But health systems and medical groups that have been offering telemedicine services to existing patients for several years see the new legislation as an opportunity to expand their existing service lines and cast a wider net to bring in a new subset of patients into their system.

“The problem is many people—the walking well—they really haven’t established a primary care physician yet,” David James, M.D., senior vice president and CEO of Memorial Hermann Medical Group in Houston told FierceHealthcare. “They may not even care to; they want care on-demand. This is really an opportunity for us to be in that market, at least for our own local metro area.”

For the last several years, Memorial Hermann Health System has partnered with the University of Texas to provide telestroke services, follow-up visits for patients after surgery and for certain pediatric subspecialties. Physicians also used telehealth to access behavioral health specialists during patient exams. Under the previous law, patients that saw a doctor within the Memorial Hermann Medical Group could engage via telemedicine with any other physician within the medical group.

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But all of those models tap into the system's existing patient population. The new law allows the organization to utilize a much broader base of independent physicians that work closely with the system’s accountable care organization.

Pushing telehealth to the general population is the next logical progression towards a clinically integrated system, James said, and it may prove more appealing than a telehealth company that lacks a physical location for more intensive care. If Memorial Hermann can offer the convenience of telehealth for minor ailments like the flu, those previously untapped patients are more likely to return when they need medical care at a physical location.

“What it does is provide an easy button for all the patients out there,” James said. “If we become the easy button, you can go online and call and we’ll get you what you need at your convenience and at the level you need."

“It’s true—we’re trying to get patients to attribute themselves to us become marketing-wise ‘sticky’ to Memorial Hermann so that when you do need that next level of care, you’re coming through to us,” he added, estimating the system would deploy new direct-to-consumer initiatives over the course of 18-36 months, a rollout is purposefully slow and deliberate to ensure the supply matches the demand.

The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), which has been providing telemedicine services to patients for the last twoAlexander Vo decades, is tentatively interested in a similar approach. Alexander Vo, Ph.D. (pictured right), the director of UTMB’s Center for Telehealth Research and Policy, said the system is still in an “active exploration” phase to look at potential options for expanding telehealth.

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For now, UTMB’s telehealth priorities are still focused on providing services to its existing population, but the new law provides an opportunity to push telehealth services to patients they don’t normally interact with.

Despite their interest in direct-to-consumer offerings, both Vo and James eschewed the idea that they would compete with national telehealth companies like Teledoc or Doctor on Demand that are eager to take hold of the market. Instead, they viewed their new telehealth models as an extension of their existing services, and any provider-based consumer models would be driven by quality rather than profits.

“The important thing for us to keep our eye on is that we continue to provide quality care and make sure we meet the standard of care through whatever medium we utilize,” Vo said.