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Are Healthcare Providers Getting Comfortable With Telehealth?

Recent research indicates that healthcare providers are diagnosing and treating patients with telehealth as well as - or even better than - they're doing in person. Does this mean virtual care technology has reached maturity?

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- While research has long suggested that telehealth can be more cost-effective than the in-person visit, new studies are suggesting that doctors who use connected care technology are also becoming better care providers.

A year-long telehealth study by Humana found that physicians using a virtual care platform prescribe less antibiotics than they do for in-office visits and are more discerning about tests and follow-ups, resulting in more effective treatment.

Oh – and those telehealth visits only cost an average of $38, compared to an average of $114 for a visit to the doctor’s office.

“This shows us that virtual care should be the front door for healthcare,” says Ian Tong, MD, chief medical officer for San Francisco-based telehealth provider Doctor On Demand, which conducted the study with the insurer. “This isn’t a gimmick.”

The results of the study aren’t entirely new, but they point to a maturity in the telehealth model of care that could lead to an uptick in new programs – and, many hope, new opportunities for reimbursement, especially from Medicare and Medicaid.

And with maturity comes sustainability.

Last year, another telehealth provider, Zipnosis, partnered with Carrot Health on an analysis of direct-to-consumer telehealth services that plotted out a path to sustainability. The study found that a health system using a virtual care platform could bring in more patients and generate revenues through improved care management.

“While further study is needed, this data strongly suggests that health systems can use virtual care to promote patient acquisition and conversion, driving incremental value and increasing revenues,” Jon Pearce, co-founder and CEO of Zipnosis, and Kurt Waltenbaugh, Carrot Health’s founder and CEO, wrote in a complementary white paper of the Carrot Health study.

The Humana-Doctor On Demand study, yet to be published, compared roughly 5,500 patient cases in 2016 and 2017, matching in-person treatment against the Doctor On Demand platform. It found that doctors using a connected care platform prescribed antibiotics in 36.4 percent of the visits, compared to 40.1 percent of in-person visits.

The study also found that referrals and follow-up care were slightly higher for virtual visits over the first two weeks after an initial visit, but those numbers dropped after two months, indicating doctors were more apt to quickly refer challenging or uncertain cases to other treatment, such as an urgent care clinic or ER. For more common cases, however, they were more likely to decide on a diagnosis and treatment and stick with that plan, finishing the treatment more quickly.

Tong said the telehealth platform compels doctors to be more decisive – because they’re not in the same room as the patient, they’ll follow evidence-based protocols and order tests to be sure, or they’ll refer patients to other care providers. This speeds up the treatment plan for patients, often resulting in quicker outcomes and reduced healthcare costs.

Tong says healthcare providers are becoming comfortable with virtual visits, and with better technology and access to clinical decision support they can move from diagnosis to treatment more confidently. As time goes by, he expects those same providers to become more proficient with treating complex cases via telehealth, which in turn should boost remote patient monitoring programs and connected health platforms for people with chronic conditions.

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