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Telehealth: Cost Saver or Cost Driver?

Over 1 million virtual doctor visits were reported in 2015. Telehealth companies have long asserted that increased access to physicians via video or phone conferencing saves money by reducing office visits and Emergency Department care. But a new study calls this cost savings into question. Increased convenience can increase utilization, which may improve access, but not reduce costs.

The study has some obvious limitations. First of all, it followed patients who used one particular telehealth service for one specific cluster of disease (“respiratory illness”) and narrowed the cost measure to spending on that condition only. Strep throat, coughs, and sinusitis are not drivers of potentially expensive care to begin with, so major cost savings (by avoiding the ER or hospitalization) would not be expected with the use of telehealth services for most of these concerns.

Secondly, the patients whose data were scrutinized had commercial insurance (i.e. a generally healthier and younger population than Medicare beneficiaries, for example), and it is possible that the use of telehealth would differ among people with government insurance, high-deductible plans or no insurance at all.

Thirdly, the study did not look at different ways that virtual doctor visits are currently being incorporated into healthcare delivery systems. For example, I was part of a direct primary care practice in Virginia (DocTalker Family Medicine) that offered virtual visits for those patients who had previously been examined in-person by their physician. The familiarity significantly reduced liability concerns and the tendency for over-testing. Since the doctor on the other side of the phone or video knew the patient, the differential diagnosis shrank dramatically, allowing for personalized real-time treatment options.

I’ve also been answering questions for eDocAmerica for over 10 years. This service offers employers a very low cost “per member per month” rate to provide access to board-certified physicians who answer patient questions 24/7 via email. eDocs do not treat patients (no ordering of tests or writing prescriptions), but can provide sound suggestions for next steps, second opinions, clarifying guidance on test results, and identify “red flag” symptoms that likely require urgent attention.

For telehealth applications outside the direct influence of health insurance (such as DocTalker and eDocAmerica), cost savings are being reaped directly by patients and employers. The average DocTalker patient saves thousands a year on health insurance premiums (purchasing high deductible, catastrophic plans) and using health savings account (HSA) funds for their primary care needs. They might spend $300/year on office or virtual visits and low-cost lab and radiology testing (pre-negotiated by DocTalker with local vendors). As for eDocAmerica, employers pay less than a dollar per month for their employees to have unlimited access to physician-driven information.

The universe of telehealth applications is larger than we think (including mobile health, remote patient monitoring, and asynchronous data sharing), and already extends outside of the traditional commercial health insurance model. Technology and market demand are fueling a revolution in how we access outpatient healthcare (which represents ~40% of total healthcare costs), making it more convenient and affordable. As these solutions become more commonplace, I have hope that we can indeed dramatically reduce costs and improve access to basic care.

Keeping people well and out of the hospital should be healthcare’s prime directive. When those efforts fail, safety net strategies are necessary to protect patients from devastating costs. How best to provide that medical safety net is one of the greatest dilemmas of our time. For now, we may have to settle for solving the “lower hanging fruit” of outpatient medicine, beginning with expanding innovative uses of telehealth services.

Combining Telehealth And Mobile Technology To Improve The Quality Of Health Care

Bill Crounse, MD, Senior Director, Worldwide Health, Worldwide Public Sector Microsoft Corporation shares his insights and describes four leading trends and technologies that will transform health and health care in 2012 and beyond.

These leading technologies include:  cloud computing, health gaming, telehealth services and remote monitoring/mobile health.

Telehealth, Remote Monitoring, Mobile Health

I’d like to focus on telehealth and remote monitoring/mobile health since I feel telehealth is the nucleus of patient care, and telehealth can help reduce health care costs, and improve quality health care for patients. Telehealth technology combined mobile technology such as smartphones will make monitoring patients conditions easier and more efficient, and “cheaper and more scalable.

Patient Quality Health Care

Through the Accountable Care Organizational Model (ACO), the core concept is to Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Health in 30*

Telehealth Services May Support Mass Exodus From Nursing Homes

Did you know that every nursing home resident in the U.S. must be asked every quarter whether she wants to go home, regardless of her health or mental status? And if she says yes, there is a local agency that must spring into action to make that happen.

This is the result of a 2010 Center for Medicaid/Medicare Services regulation aimed at helping keep older people in their (less expensive) homes rather than institutional settings. A New York Times article notes that the nursing home exodus, while modest to date, is building. This means the number of people with serious chronic conditions like congestive heart failure, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease who draw heavily on community-based primary care services will grow.

These returnees are joining their peers and the blossoming crowd of us Baby Boomers who intend to resist living in nursing homes with as much spirit as our parents did, while the consequences of our plump and sedentary lifestyles arrange themselves into a constellation of diabetes, congestive heart failure and COPD similar to the one that plagues our elders.

Much has been written about Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Prepared Patient Forum: What It Takes Blog*

Robots Allow Experts In The Medical Field To Bring Care To Rural Areas


Both in the United States and around the globe there is a mismatch between needed medical care and the doctors who can provide it.  Most physicians are located in urban areas where there are hospitals, teaching schools, lab and Xray and specialists to deal with most every medical condition.  Rural areas in the United States lack these resources and patients either do without,  or must travel far to be seen.  In developing countries there may be no services at all for hundreds of miles.  That is where telehealth can play a huge role in bringing medicine to the  people.

The “In-touch” robot is one technology that can work all over the world.  Through a simple lap-top computer a doctor can Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at EverythingHealth*

The Power Of Social Media Networking In Health Care

In a recent Harvard Business Review Blog, David Armano writes about the six pillars of influence that lead to measurably favorable outcomes.

To achieve measurably better health, the pillars Armano explains can certainly be adopted.

He notes how the “social web can amplify signals, influence behavior and lead to action.”

Social networking has changed the landscape in health care.  Technology has paved the way for instant communication and feedback.

While some companies continue to question the value of social media networking, debating whether or not they should be on Twitter or Facebook, others have superseded the hesitation, and are presently into the next phase of social networking. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Health in 30*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

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I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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