Cigna study: Virtual care can reduce unnecessary ER, urgent care visits by 19%

Integrating virtual care can save the healthcare system significant amounts of money, as well as avoid unnecessary visits to the emergency department or urgent care center, according to a new study from Cigna.

The study, conducted alongside its telehealth arm MDLive, found that patients who saw virtual providers also saw 19% fewer visits to the ER or urgent care. In addition, virtual urgent care visits reduced duplication of care by 16% compared to other virtual primary care providers or specialists.

Cigna notes that these reductions in unneeded visits are especially crucial as hospitals face down the current COVID-19 surge, caused by the highly infectious omicron variant. Use of telehealth and other virtual care services has skyrocketed due to the pandemic.

“This dynamic shift has prompted questions about virtual health care’s impact on spending, particularly for employers who may have been grappling with rising costs throughout the health care spectrum," said Shawna Dodds, vice president of product development for Cigna, in a statement.

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Cigna data show that the average cost of a non-urgent virtual care visit is $93 less than an in-person visit. Seeing a specialist virtually costs $120 less on average, and virtual visits cost $141 less.

Virtual visits could also mitigate healthcare costs down the line by reaching people who may not otherwise have access to care. Cigna found that 75% of customers who conducted a virtual wellness screening through MDLive in 2020 lacked a regular primary care provider.

“We are squarely focused on bringing the highest value solutions to our customers, which includes optimizing how they connect to and receive quality care, in a convenient way that meets their lifestyles,” Dodds said. “For many of our customers, virtual care continues to be the best way to meet their needs in a cost-effective manner.”

Cigna's analysis echoed other industry research in finding that virtual care holds significant potential to address behavioral health needs, especially in underserved areas. The average wait to see a behavioral clinician in person is 48 days, Dodds said, while virtual visits can cut that time down to two or three days.