Insurers Work With Telehealth Companies To Improve Access to Care

July 14, 2014 in News

Health insurers, such as Aetna and WellPoint, are increasingly looking to cut costs by allowing millions of patients to participate in initial physician visits online, Bloomberg reports.

For example, WellPoint this month gave four million patients the option of having telehealth visits with physicians. Meanwhile, Aetna said it plans to increase access to online health care services to eight million people next year, up from three million who currently have such access.

In order to expand such programs, many insurers are partnering with companies such as American Well, MDLive and Teladoc, which offer online visits with physicians who can prescribe medications in some states.

As telehealth efforts increase, medical experts and regulators have worked to address the practice. For example, the American Medical Association last month issued guidelines to help shape telehealth development.

American Telemedicine Association CEO Jonathan Linkous said that an increasing number of patients “are comfortable seeing a physician online.” He added, “It’s an adoption process. They understand it and use it.”

Further, MDLive CEO Randy Parker said that individuals who have health plans with high deductibles favor the telehealth option because of its lower cost. According to a study published in the journal PLoS One last year, the median cost for an emergency department visit has reached $1,223, while many telehealth visits cost less than $50.

According to Bloomberg, a shortage of primary care physicians has also fueled the popularity of telehealth services.

Barriers Remain

However, some physicians are concerned that online consultations may not offer the correct diagnoses because of unclear computer screens or the inability to feel a patient’s body.

Peter Antall, head of Online Care Group, said that while “there are some things” physicians cannot do during online consultations, physicians usually can tell when patients require in-person treatment.

Meanwhile, some state medical boards have limited physicians’ abilities to prescribe medications online or require pre-existing relationships in order for physicians to treat patients virtually (French, Bloomberg, 7/11).

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