Telemedicine’s challenge: Getting patients to click app
Walmart workers can now see a doctor for only $4. The catch? It has to be a virtual visit.
The retail giant recently rolled back the $40 price on telemedicine, becoming the latest big company to nudge employees toward a high-tech way to get diagnosed and treated remotely.
But patients have been slow to embrace virtual care. Eighty percent of mid-size and large U.S. companies offered telemedicine services to their workers last year, up from 18 percent in 2014, according to the consultant Mercer. Only 8 percent of eligible employees used telemedicine at least once in 2017, most recent figures show.
“There’s an awful lot of effort right now focused on educating the consumer that there’s a better way,” said Jason Gorevic, CEO of telemedicine provider Teladoc Health.
Widespread smartphone use, looser regulations and employer enthusiasm are helping to expand access to telemedicine, where patients interact with doctors and nurses from afar, often through a secure video connection.
Supporters say virtual visits make it easier for patients to see a therapist or quickly find help for ailments that aren’t emergencies. But many still fall back to going to the doctor’s office when they’re sick.
Some patients, especially older ones, just prefer an in-person visit.
Tom Hill is among that crowd. The 66-year-old from Mooresville, Indiana, said he’s never used telemedicine and has no plans to.
“I believe in a handshake and looking a guy in the eye,” said Hill during a recent shopping break at a downtown Indianapolis mall. “I don’t buy anything online either.”
Doctors have used telemedicine for years to monitor patients or reach those in remote locations. Now More employers are encouraging people covered under their health plans to seek care virtually for several reasons.
Telemedicine can reduce time spent away from the job, and it also can cost half the price of a doctor’s visit, which might top $100 for someone with a high-deductible plan.
However, those savings can be negated if telemedicine’s convenience causes people to overuse it.
Walmart said it cut the cost for virtual visits to give another care option to the more than one million people covered by its health benefits.
Employers aren’t the only ones pushing the technology.
The drugstore chains CVS Health and Walgreens are promoting apps that let customers connect to doctors. Some insurers like Oscar Health are offering it for free to customers as a first line of treatment.
MDLive CEO Rich Berner said telemedicine is like the digital video recorder TiVo, which took a while to catch on with viewers.
“People were so used to doing things the other way that it just took a little while to kind of really go mainstream,” he said. “But when it did, it went mainstream big-time.”