Transformative Medicine: Patient Visits Move Online

Video Visits With Patients Are Taking Off

Neil Chesanow


September 24, 2014

In This Article

Aggressive Marketing Is Expanding Awareness

Visit health insurer WellPoint's LiveHealth Online website, and you can view a video of a "young invincible" zooming along on his motorcycle, a white-coated, stethoscope-clad physician seated beside him in a sidecar.[17] Next, a teenage couch potato is scarfing down Chinese food and soda while his doctor sits on the sofa beside him, shaking his head. Next, a businessman piles into a taxi and proceeds to sneeze, while his doctor, seated beside him, hands him a tissue.

Such compelling scenes are designed to clarify for members of the insurer's client health plans the benefits of virtual visits. The ability to videoconference with a physician on a desktop computer or mobile device is currently offered to over 4 million employees of WellPoint's self-insured clients nationwide, says John Jesser, MBA, Vice President of Patient Engagement Strategy.

This doesn't mean 4 million employees are actually aware of and using the service, which was introduced in 2013, Jesser hastens to add. "But enrollment and adoption have been growing very well over the past six months," he says, thanks in part to videos such as the one just described, which build awareness.

The main users of the service right now are working mothers; business travelers; and college students, who, even though they generally have access to on-campus health centers, often prefer video visits with the doctor in their dorms as a first option, Jesser says.

Offering videoconferencing as an option saves health plans money too.

Last November, for example, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), which includes 21 hospitals and 400 outpatient sites, began offering patients throughout Pennsylvania 24/7 access to a physician via videoconferencing or telephone. The cost to patients: $38. Savings to the UPMC Health Plan: an average of $86.80 per member visit compared with the cost of an office visit.[18,19]

"Every time patients have a visit on our [American Well's] system, the data suggest the health plan saves $70-$140, on the basis of replacement of more expensive healthcare that patients would have otherwise received," points out pediatrician Peter Antall, MD, President and Medical Director of Online Care Group, based in Newbury Park, California. Online Care Group is a nationwide physician network that specializes in virtual visits, with such insurers as WellPoint and United as clients.

Employers are at the forefront of the videoconferencing movement, and with good reason. In August, for example, a report by Towers Watson found that telemedicine could save US firms over $6 billion annually by reducing absenteeism due to illness, lost work time by having to travel to a doctor's office during business hours, and reducing the spread of communicable diseases among employees by having them promptly diagnosed and treated online.[20]

Says Randy Parker, CEO of MDLIVE, the average response time on MDLIVE's system is 10 minutes, and a virtual visit with the doctor lasts about as long.

The Towers Watson survey found that 37% of employers plan to offer employees telemedicine services as a low-cost alternative to ER or office visits for nonurgent conditions by 2015, and 34% are considering them for 2016 or 2017.[20] The percentage of employers offering telemedicine is expected to rise from the current 22% to 37% within three years, a 68% increase, the survey found.

"We have about 4.5 million members of the self-insured market today," says MDLIVE's Parker, "and we see that increasing five-fold over the next three to five years."


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