by Matt Kiisel
on April 26, 2016
When I first heard of telemedicine I thought of the nursery rhyme I sing with my three-year-old, “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed.” In the song each time one of the disobedient monkeys falls off the bed and breaks his head (my kid would never do this), the mother calls the doctor and the doctor says, “No more monkeys jumping on the bed!” I imagined that the treatment I would receive by talking to a doctor over the phone would be about as effective as the doctor’s advice in the nursery rhyme. I didn’t give telemedicine another look until I signed up for my company’s high-deductible health plan (HDHP) and associated health savings account (HSA). Suddenly, higher out-of-pocket costs for urgent care visits made me a lot more worried about what would happen if one of my kids got sick or needed to see the doctor for something other than their wellness visits.
What I found is that I had some misconceptions about telemedicine and that I could save money and get effective treatment by using telemedicine for the types of things that would normally have me sitting in an urgent care waiting room.
Telemedicine practitioners are clear that some conditions still require in-person consultations. Telemedicine isn’t intended to replace your regular provider but can be helpful between visits when you need a consultation for a non-emergency condition such as a cough, flu symptoms, sinus infection, skin conditions, UTI, or sprains/strains. As technology has advanced the ability to diagnose and treat these types of conditions online has greatly improved. Using your mobile phone or a web camera, the doctor can perform a virtual examination. Doctors on major telemedicine platforms such as Amwell are U.S. board-certified and licensed in the state you are in so that they can even provide prescriptions in some cases.
The American Telemedicine Association reports that 1.2 million Americans had teleconsultations with doctors in 2015, and they predict that the number will increase by 25% in 2016. Additionally, a survey by Amwell shows that the visits are going beyond urgent care. There has been an increase in telemedicine for general health assessments, behavioral health, diet and nutrition counseling, and chronic disease management.
The cost savings of using telemedicine is probably the biggest selling point, especially for people with HDHPs who have to pay the full cost of services until they reach their deductible. The average telemedicine consultation is $40-$50 compared to the average estimated cost of an in-person visit ($140) or a trip to the emergency room ($500+). Even if you don’t have a HDHP telemedicine may end up being the most cost-efficient option for you. Many insurance companies now cover telemedicine, for example, SelectHealth and Intermountain Health Care recently launched their telemedicine platform, Intermountain Connect Care. SelectHealth members pay $49 up front for the services, and then the claim is submitted to SelectHealth for normal claim processing. Intermountain refunds you any cost beyond your responsibility based on your specific plan guidelines.
Another benefit of telemedicine is the increased accessibility. With telemedicine, you can access a doctor 24/7 without spending any time in a waiting room. In a matter of minutes you can be talking to a doctor. This is especially valuable when your regular doctor’s office is closed, you aren’t actually sure if you should go in to see the doctor based on your symptoms, you want a second opinion, or you are just too busy to fit an appointment into your schedule.
Finally, and perhaps one of the most overlooked but valuable benefits of telemedicine is that it is the type of consumerism that will help lower medical costs across the board. When consumers use online consultations before going to the Instacare or the ER they will often get the treatment that they need without additional costly tests. This prevents overtreatment which then decreases the overall cost of the plan. Employers who are looking for ways to manage the increasing cost of their employee benefits are beginning to see telemedicine as an important part of their overall benefits package. Towers Watson estimates that 80% of employers will offer telemedicine to employees by 2018.