Telehealth services make business sense

telemedicine is an easy and cost-effective way for a patient to receive treatment for a non-urgent condition.

Putting a price tag on physicians’ time

DALLAS – Faced with an endless cycle of non-urgent visits to the doctor or, worse, the emergency room, employers and health plans are looking to telemedicine for an easier way to connect the stuffy nose — or the sprained ankle, or the upset stomach — to the doctor. Those connections are now being made online or though phone calls engineered by companies like Teladoc, Stat Health Services and American Well.

“There’s a huge market out there for very convenient and timely access to doctors,” said Jason Gorevic, president and CEO of Dallas-based Teladoc, which began by offering simple, phone-based consults with a doctor and is now branching into online solutions, virtual onsite clinics (make use of kiosks) and physician-facing portals.

“Every time an employee goes to the ER, the employer is paying for it,” said Alan Roga, MD, of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Stat Health, which focuses its business on non-critical visits that are usually handled in emergency rooms but could just as easily be handled in an online visit. “This gives them an alternative, while also improving ER throughput and efficiency.”

Teladoc, which recently launched a pilot program with Aetna for its fully insured medical plans in Texas and Florida, offers a 24-hour–a day service, available by phone or online, for as much as $38. A physician responds to a request within 30 minutes, offering a diagnosis, recommending treatment and any prescriptions needed, coordinating follow-up care with the patient’s primary care provider and entering the information into the patient’s electronic medical record.

According to Gorevic, 91 percent of all encounters handled by Teladoc physicians are resolved without the need for follow-up care.

“That’s a strong number in light of the pressure on primary care providers,” he said. “In fact, the general population doesn’t have a good appreciation for the primary care access crisis that we’re going to face as we get to 2014,” when healthcare reform mandates access for everyone to health insurance. In addition, he said, hospitals are seeing emergency room use rise 9 percent even as they’re shutting down ER units and farming the business out to urgent care clinics.

As evidence of Teladoc’s success, the company recently secured $18.6 million in venture capital funding, led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

“KPCB seeks to identify industry leaders in markets that address significant unmet needs and are poised for explosive growth,” said Dana Mead, a partner in California-based KPCB, in a press release. “Teladoc and telemedicine clearly meet these criteria.”

The key to the success of this healthcare segment of healthcare may very well lie in the ability to generate revenues not only for the vendor, but for the provider.

Roga says Stat Health’s physicians also benefit in being able to supplement their practice- or hospital-based business with after-hour services.

Gorevic also sees an opportunity for growth in physician-facing services, giving practices an opportunity to coordinate patient care during off hours and tapping into a practice’s physician strengths. As the healthcare landscape changes, he said, practices hoping to expand their business need to look beyond the office walls or normal office hours.

That’s an avenue being explored by American Well, the Boston-based company that has been offering online consults for several years. Earlier this year the company launched Online Care for Providers, a platform that enables physicians to incorporate telehealth services into their daily patient care operations.

“Healthcare is in the midst of unprecedented transformation,” said Roy Shoenberg, MD, America Well’s CEO. “With Online Care For Providers, American Well is the first to bring a complete telehealth solution into the hands of every healthcare professional. As intuitive and secure as online shopping or banking, it is accessible to providers and patients from anywhere and at any time, without the expensive equipment or painful operational hurdles of traditional telemedicine.”