Telehealth is going legitimate. It’s not a trend, or a fad, or a goofy self-help search engine query and response system. It’s now run across sophisticated networks of real, board-certified doctors, thousands of them, and is endorsed by real-world entities like the Mayo Clinic, Medicare, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
What’s more, your employer and your government are increasingly becoming willing to foot the bill for you to visit a virtual doctor online. Nearly 20% of employer-sponsored health care plans now offer coverage for consultations and treatment via video conferencing, with that figure expected to tip over 25% in the next year and a half.
The arrival of telemedicine insurance not only makes online healthcare more accessible, it should also give the industry greater legitimacy in the eyes of the American public. Not long ago it might have seemed like getting treated for a cold over your phone was science fiction. Now, it’s becoming part of your workplace entitlements.
The Rise of Telemedicine Insurance
Gaining acceptance into a growing number of employer-funded health care plans exposes telehealth services to a huge portion of the American public, because that’s how most people get their health coverage. It’s been that way since the 1940s, when inflation-fighting wage freezes forced employers to offer other benefits to attract the best workers. Now the tax-exempt plans are the biggest tax expenditure in the country–the $260 billion in lost payroll and income tax is more than double the annual cost of the Affordable Care Act.
So now telehealth is part of the mainstream health care system. And it goes further. More than 30 states have laws forcing insurance agencies to cover telehealth, and Medicare has recently begun providing coverage for remote patient monitoring services among seniors and people with disabilities–although this is strictly for rural and remote residents.
The companies providing the actual health care behind these state and federal initiatives have, as expected, thrived and now offer a broad enough range of services to make telehealth a viable alternative to in-room, in-person care.
What’s Available by Telehealth?
According to the American Telemedicine Association there are more than 200 telehealth networks and 3,500 service sites in the country, and virtual care is used in some form or other over half of all U.S. hospitals.
Three of the largest providers of online care, MDLIVE, Teladoc (which boasts 20 million members), and American Well, provide treatment for more than 50 conditions across the broad areas of general medicine, dermatology, and behavioral health. That includes the common cold, fever, and headaches, as well as acne, warts, and rashes, and psychological counseling for addiction, stress, and depression.
VC Daily has previously reported on the use of telehealth within large institutions, such as schools and senior care facilities, but it is individuals seeking help in their personal lives that have the most to gain from virtual care. The services offered by the leading online providers can be accessed 24/7 through apps designed for laptops, tablets, and smartphones, which will eventually make visiting a doctor as easy as phoning a friend.
Why Telehealth Matters
There’s a chance that the rise of telehealth actually makes us more likely to consult a doctor. One recent study found that only 12% of telehealth visits replaced visits to other providers, the other 88% would otherwise would not have been completed.
Telehealth is also cheaper to deliver and cheaper for the patient in most cases, and coordinated networks of both general and specialist doctors will eventually help ease the emerging shortage of physicians by better targeting services to populations which have common needs, not common locations.
However, this brave new world of medicine is predicated on patients being willing to use a virtual doctor in the first place. That’s why it’s important that telehealth becomes a part of the existing, trusted health care system, especially by being included in insurance plans. It might be more convenient to visit a doctor online than lose hours attending a clinic in person, but if you don’t feel you’re getting quality care, or if you’re concerned your employer won’t accept or acknowledge the treatment, there’s no value to the service.
If, however, employer-sponsored health care plans and major government agencies continue to embrace telehealth, then public confidence in the platform will grow–even if only under the simple logic that if someone else is willing to pay, the service must be worth a try.