Telemedicine's real threat to practices is better service

If retail health clinics represent a tough source of competition for traditional physician practices, online telemedicine providers may force offices to seriously step up their games in terms of convenience, cost transparency and service.

Despite the potential drawbacks of patients losing too much in-person contact with their doctors, employers, health plans and patients are being powerfully drawn to the benefits of timely, low-cost care for minor ailments, reported an article from USA Today and Kaiser Health News.

With the shared interest of keeping costs down, the likes of insurers United Healthcare, Aetna and Cigna, as well as large employers such as General Electric and Delta Air Lines are pushing their members/employees to take advantage of virtual visits. Large companies, especially those that self-insure, are particularly enthusiastic about the ability to keep workers healthy with a minimum amount of time away from the job. Delta, for example, offers some employees access to Rite Aid's NowClinic for $10 a consultation (a 10-minute e-consult with a physician costs the public $45).

Some physician groups and consumer advocates, on the other hand, are apprehensive about the trend. "Getting medical advice over a computer or telephone is appropriate only when patients already know their doctors," Glen Stream, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, told KHN. "Even for a minor illness, I think people are going to be shortchanged," he said.

But since nonphysician patients aren't generally equipped to assess the quality of the clinical care they receive, it's service differences that may catch their attention. For example, a patient who used NowClinic when she was uninsured told KHN that she'd use the service again even with insurance, in part because the online doctor called her three days after the e-visit to see how she was feeling. "I've never had my own primary care doctor do that," she said.

Forty-two percent of patients said they would consider changing doctors to take advantage of telemedicine services, according to telemedicine provider Smart House Calls based in Watkinsville.

To learn more:
- read the article from USA Today and Kaiser Health News