Telemedicine Is Expanding Health Care Access

E-health services may expand access to medical care.

A new study published last week in the HealthAffairs journal revealed that telemedicine is an attractive means of health care for young and affluent people. What’s more, researchers also showed that it might actually be a more successful treatment method than a traditional in-person doctor visit.

“Healthcare costs are huge and [telemedicine] could help”

Telemedicine, remote consultation with doctors via video services or apps that send and receive test results, is often described as a cutting edge and burgeoning innovation, but in truth it’s already pretty well established. “There is a consumer demand for it. Healthcare costs are huge and [telemedicine] could help,” says Jonathon Linkous, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association.

Teledoc is one of the largest telemedicine companies operating in the U.S. They offer patients 24 -hour access to a physician via phone or video conference for minor health issues. Last year they connected over 120,000 patients to a doctor online – Ateev Mehrotra from Harvard Medical School followed 3,701 of them in California between February 2012 and April 2013.

After Mehrotra crunched the numbers, he found that Teledoc users tend to be young, affluent (typically earning more than $65,000 per year) and without a previous connection to a healthcare alternative. In other, words telemedicine is “reaching people who aren’t seeking care otherwise,” said Mehrotra.

“Improving access in the U.S. is a big deal”

Even though the Teledoc demographic appears to be a group of people that we aren’t traditionally worried about in terms of health care, “Improving access in the U.S. is a big deal,” said Mehrotra. Teledoc patients sought care for a number of different ailments, mostly minor things like respiratory or skin problems.

But perhaps the most interesting data analyzed in the study suggests that telemedicine may actually be a more effective treatment method than a traditional sit-down consultation in a doctor’s office. Mehrotra noted the number of Teledoc that users scheduled a follow up appointment for a similar condition, which chalked up at 6 percent – compared to a 13 percent follow up rate of patients who used in-person consultations.

“If you look at follow ups as a rough marker for quality,” says Mehrotra, you’ll see that telemedicine has a significantly lower rate of repeat visitations, placing a lower burden and cost on the healthcare system. But does the absence of a follow up mean the patient’s problem was successfully addressed? “As an advocate for Telemedicine, I would like to think that,” said Linkous. Mehrotra remains cautious, “we should be conscious that the people who used Teledoc [in this study] may be less likely to seek out healthcare anyway,” so are probably less likely to seek out a second visitation.