Amwell CEOs on the telehealth boom and why it will 'democratize' healthcare

While questions remain about what regulatory flexibilities will remain in place to support the ongoing demand for telehealth, Amwell executives believe virtual care has proven its value to providers, payers and patients. (Amwell)

The COVID-19 pandemic has catapulted the telehealth industry forward by decades in a matter of months, according to Amwell's Roy Schoenberg.

That not only benefits the Amwell's business, but it's a win for patients, said Schoenberg, who serves as the company's president and co-CEO. 

"We are going to see an enormous amount of change, nothing short of a revolution, going forward," he told Fierce Healthcare.

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Roy and his brother Ido Schoenberg have been telehealth advocates for more than a decade since launching Amwell, formerly American Well, in 2006. The Boston-based telehealth company works with more than 240 health systems comprised of 2,000 hospitals and 55 health plan partners with over 36,000 employers, reaching over 150 million lives.

Like other virtual care companies, Amwell has seen skyrocketing demand for its services during the COVID-19 pandemic as stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines prevented many patients from visiting doctors in person. Shares in public digital health companies like Teladoc and Livongo have grown by double digits during the health crisis.

RELATED: Telehealth could grow to a $250B revenue opportunity post-COVID-19: analysis

The momentum around telehealth also has attracted investors. The company recently raised $194 million in a series C funding round.

Amwell also is gearing up to go public later this year, according to CNBC's Christina Farr and Ari Levy. The company confidentially filed for an IPO earlier this week and has hired Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to lead the deal, Farr and Levy reported last week, citing people who asked not to be named because the plans have not been announced.

Roy (left) and Ido Schoenberg (Amwell)

The company declined to comment on the CNBC report.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Amwell was providing an average of 5,000 telehealth visits a day. That has jumped to 45,000 to 50,000 virtual visits a day due to the coronavirus, said Ido Schoenberg, who serves as chairman and co-CEO. 

"We saw 30 times, 40 times higher volumes and we have clients that had 2% to 3% of their patient volume online that now have 75% of visits online," he said. "It’s truly incredible. The number of active providers on our platform grew seven times over in two months."

As visits surged, technology companies struggled to keep up with demand, and patients reported long wait times for virtual visits on some platforms.

Roy Schoenberg acknowledged Amwell also faced challenges rapidly scaling its technology and services almost overnight as it was "thrown into the center stage of trying to save the world."

The company leverages automation for processes such as onboarding physicians, credentialing, licensing, and working with health plans and that capability proved critical to scaling its services, the executives said.

"We needed to allow 40,000 to 50,000 physicians to come on to our system and begin to use it. If this was a manual process, it would have been broken," Roy Schoenberg said.

Regulatory barriers to telehealth also quickly fell away, at least temporarily. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and commercial health plans have expanded access to telehealth by offering payment parity for many telehealth services for the first time.

While questions remain about what regulatory flexibilities will remain in place to support the ongoing demand for telehealth, Amwell executives believe virtual care has proven its value to providers, payers and patients.

CMS will likely tighten up some of the relaxed requirements around telehealth which is a "fiscally responsible approach," Roy Schoenberg said.

RELATED: Amwell lands close to $200M in funding to keep up with demand for telehealth

"At the end of the day, even though the government tends to be a little bit slow, it gravitates to where the value is. How long will it take for the payment structure to retract and then expand, that’s anyone’s guess. We have an election year coming in. Who knows what that is going to do? There may be some changes, but I think overall, the genie is out of the bottle, the toothpaste is out of the tube, or whatever phrase you want to use," he said.

The executives never doubted that telehealth would, at some point, reach the mainstream. Now that it's happened, health systems and patients have become advocates for the technology and that will also put pressure on CMS and commercial payers to continue to support it, they said.

The executives now see an opportunity for Amwell to use its platform to expand the reach of healthcare to more patients. There is a growing industry of telehealth providers, device makers, and technology-enabled disease management companies that will enable digital home healthcare services, they said.

RELATED: Telemedicine companies see funding boom of $788M in Q1

"What we built is something way bigger than a video conference between doctor and patient, which you can easily do using Zoom or FaceTime," Ido Schoenberg said.

Digital connectivity will enable providers to gather health data on patients from wearables and devices to better understand gaps in care, get an overall picture of patients' health and then provide more effective interventions, all without patients leaving their living rooms. The combination of telehealth and remote devices will enable elderly, frail patients to receive care at home, where they want to be, rather than being moved to a skilled nursing facility, they said.

"It's about the ability to democratize healthcare and make great care available to many more people that today don’t always have access to it," Ido Schoenberg said.

Roy Schoenberg added, "These are the opportunities opening fast and furious in front of us and the promise is to make healthcare less painful as an individual experience. That’s the value proposition."

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