Telehealth services hired by employers and health plans are viewed increasingly as competition by physicians and healthcare systems, observers say. Like retail clinics, these services—which offer remote audio and/or video consultations with physicians on mobile devices or desktop computers—handle the kinds of minor acute problems that are the bread and butter of primary care.
A growing number of healthcare organizations are meeting this challenge by partnering with telehealth services such as American Well, MDLive, Teladoc, and Doctors on Demand. Healthcare systems that employ physicians are leading the way into this brave new world of virtual visits. But there are also ways for private-practice physicians to take advantage of telehealth. Indeed, they may be forced to use this technology as more and more of their patients demand it.
Because this trend has emerged so swiftly, many physicians may not have noticed it yet.
It’s unclear how many healthcare systems offer virtual visits, but it’s likely that the number is increasing. “Any healthcare system with multiple hospitals in a region is likely to consider doing this,” says Jennifer Gingrass, MS, a principal with ECG Management Consultants in Seattle. The competition from telehealth services and other nontraditional players, she adds, “is forcing the health systems to reevaluate how they go about providing care.”
Christi McCarren, RN, MBA, vice president of retail health and service lines for MultiCare, a five-hospital system based in Tacoma, Wash., that already offers virtual visits, notes that other healthcare organizations in her state are doing the same thing. “I think everybody’s going to have this within the next year,” she predicts.
The same dynamic is playing out in Virginia, where three overlapping healthcare systems are all moving forward on telehealth. Sentara Health Care, based in Hampton Roads, has had MDLive do its virtual visits since 2012. Recently, Riverside Health System, based in Newport News, has followed suit with American Well, and Bon Secours Virginia Medical Group in Richmond, part of the Bon Secours health system, expects to sign a contract with American Well shortly.
Peter Antall, MD, medical director of American Well, says the provider space is the fastest growing part of the company’s business. “Both the large healthcare systems and smaller providers have had their eyes opened,” he says. “They understand that telehealth is here—this is another way that provider-patient interactions can occur—and they’re beginning to find out what fits with their practice and their lifestyle and their patients’ lifestyle.”
Another indication of how quickly this phenomenon is expanding comes from the American College of Physicians (ACP). Wayne J. Riley, MD, MACP, ACP president, notes that many of the association’s 140,000 physician members “are involved in these telehealth initiatives.”
Overall, he says, “we’re very supportive of telemedicine as a way of providing healthcare. It also has the benefit of enhancing patient-physician collaboration. And there are studies suggesting that it can reduce costs.”