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A Look Ahead: Will 2016 be the Year That Telehealth Gets Creative?

Almost every provider offers telemedicine or is looking into the platform - or is being pressured by the competition to give it a try. This may lead to some interesting tactics for consumer engagement in the year ahead.

By Eric Wicklund

- Looking for that last-minute gift that shows you really care? How about an mHealth gift certificate?

In what’s being called an industry first – and a new attempt at sparking consumer engagement - New York-based DocChat is offering “Digital Doctor Gift Certificates,” good for one, several or even a year’s worth of telemedicine visits.

“We want to do more than make healthcare convenient and affordable,” company founder Dr. Steve Okhravi, a former hospital ER physician, said in a press release. “We want to make it a commodity, a product people can purchase in different packages and give to friends or relatives who are too busy to visit a local doctor but not too busy to see one through their smart phone.”

The certificates are good for one visit ($40), three visits ($110), five visits ($180) and a year’s worth of consultations ($500), with the guarantee that a board-certified physicians will be available for a video chat within 15 minutes via phone, laptop, tablet or PC.

The gift certificates can be purchased anywhere in the U.S. and e-mailed to anyone, no matter whether the recipient is insured. The one condition is that the recipient’s home state has to allow telemedicine.

With vendors like American Well, Teladoc and Doctor On Demand dominating the market and providers and smaller startups looking to show off their own platforms, consumer engagement is fast becoming the new marketing tool. Some services highlight the fact that a patient can connect with his or her own doctor, while others promise a certified physician at a moment’s notice, focusing on the adage that in emergencies one doesn’t care who’s delivering care as long as it’s effective.

This idea of marketing services often lies outside the comfort zone of healthcare providers, but with the transition to consumer-directed healthcare at hand, it’s becoming a valuable tool. And that’s causing business-savvy companies and healthcare executives to think outside the box and employ tools more often associated to the retail, banking or airline industries.

Two years ago, San Jose, Calif.-based Telecure, the virtual care business of the state’s Action Urgent Care in California program, tried its hand at engagement with a “Pay-With-A-Tweet” program. After a using the telemedicine service, a consumer could Tweet the experience or create a Facebook post, and the bill for the encounter would be waived.

While that incentive is no longer offered, providers and telemedicine vendors realize they’ll have to be creative not only to get in front of new and existing customers, but to keep them coming back. Studies have shown that while older Americans are more apt to stay with their family doctor, younger generations aren’t so loyal, and are liable to shop around for convenience and cost.

Earlier this year, Vitals asked about 800 Americans to rate their relationship with their doctor. The results: 54 percent said it was "good enough for the moment," 30.3 percent chose "This is the one and only," 11.4 percent said "I'm not really into him/her," and 4.3 percent chose "cold and emotionless." In other words, some 70 percent of those surveyed weren’t altogether happy with their doctor’s personality – and yet more than half said it was good enough for now.

As telemedicine becomes more ubiquitous in 2016, providers are going to have to decide whether “good enough for the moment” is good enough for them. If not, they’ll have to get creative. That may come in gift certificates or alternative pricing programs, or perhaps they’ll come up with something else to stand out in the crowd.

This could make for an interesting year ahead.

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