When WebMD CEO David Schlanger mentioned this month that the online media and information company was looking at the telehealth space, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The company has hinted at such a move for a few years.
But a lot of people took notice anyways – a signal, perhaps, that the technology’s time has come.
As the Health Information and Management Systems Society holds its annual conference and exhibition this week in Las Vegas, expect the telehealth platform to grab a share of the spotlight. With the on-demand healthcare market expected to top $ 1 billion in a few short years and more than half the states mandating that virtual care visits be treated the same as in-person visits, dozens of telehealth providers are eager to gain a foothold in a competitive ecosystem.
But how to stand out?
Teladoc, one of the largest in the industry, is targeting a particular sore spot in healthcare: the shortage of behavioral health providers. The Texas-based company recently launched a behavioral telehealth platform that offers on-demand online access – including phone- and video-based consults – to a stable of some 850 behavioral health providers.
“There’s a huge unmet need for mental healthcare,” says Julian L. Cohen, a 35-year veteran in the healthcare field who’d launched his own web-based behavioral telehealth firm in 2010 before being hired last September to head Teladoc Behavioral Health. “It really is the perfect time.”
Cohen says the service, an extension of the company’s existing telehealth platform, addresses two issues: the limited number of behavioral health providers, and a population that’s growing (an estimated 25 percent of the nation’s adults has some sort of behavioral health condition) and doesn’t particularly want to visit a doctor’s office.
“This platform has been created for convenience and comfort,” says Cohen, who says more than 130 million behavioral health sessions each year could be better addressed via telehealth than the typical trip to the therapist’s office.
In addition, says Cohen, behavioral health is focused on “talk therapy,” or conversation, rather than a physical examination. Another difference: Unlike virtual non-acute care or emergency visits, which are one-and-done sessions that are ultimately funneled back to the primary care provider, a virtual visit with a telebehavioral health provider usually develops into a series of sessions, giving the provider the opportunity to build out a sustainable business model.
Also making a splash at HIMSS16 is American Well, one of Teladoc’s chief competitors. The Massachusetts-based company recently unveiled a telehealth software development kit (SDK) designed to enable a healthcare provider, retailer, health plan or even a medical publisher (hint, WebMD) to create its own on-demand platform.
“The SDK is a game changer for how consumers will access online healthcare in the future,” Dr. Roy Schoenberg, the company’s CEO and co-founder, said in a press release. “For the first time, any company with a consumer-facing health application can embed online doctor visits into that app – making telehealth an integral part of their own brand experience. Not only does this build brand loyalty with consumers by offering a compelling service, it makes online healthcare easier to access than ever before.”
Other players in the market include Doctor On Demand, which signed its 400th employer customer earlier this year and has raised almost $90 million in investments, and MDLive, whose partnership with Walgreen’s was expanded to 25 states late last year. Not to be outdone Walgreen’s competitor, CVS Health, has a partnership in place with American Well, Teladoc and Doctor On Demand.
Some of the up-and-coming companies on the market include TruClinic, based in Salt Lake City, which launched in Utah with a platform that catered to college students, small practices and remote Native American communities and is now eyeing the international market; and Zipnosis, a Minneapolis-based company that recently picked up another $17 million in funding and launched ZipTicket, a “virtual boarding pass” that’s designed to streamline the clinical process.
And then there’s Carena, one of several companies partnering with healthcare providers to offer branded virtual care services. The Seattle-based company recently secured $13 million in investments, bringing its total to more than $33 million, and specializes in giving hospitals and health systems their own telehealth platform.
While the market is strong for businesses and health plans looking to provide virtual visits for their employees and members, Teladoc’s Julian Cohen says future growth lies in expansion to specialty services, like behavioral health. It’s in the specialties where the provider shortage is felt the most, and where consumers need the most help making connections.