My family and I were on vacation in California earlier this year when our youngest suddenly came down with a nasty stomach bug in the middle of the night. Even just a year ago, our only options would’ve been to drive around an unfamiliar city to find an open urgent care or potentially spend hours in an ER waiting room.
But thanks to the growth of telemedicine, my wife was able to fire up her smart phone, video chat with a board-certified doctor and pick up a prescription at a pharmacy within walking distance to the hotel. The entire process took less than 45 minutes before we had the medicine in hand, and our daughter was back to her usual rambunctious self within a day. The cost was our usual primary care visit co-pay of $25.
Telemedicine services like the one we used are making healthcare more convenient – many services allow you to see a board certified, US-based doctor 24/7 from your computer, smart phone or tablet. These services can provide a diagnosis for urgent, but easily treatable ailments, like sinus infections, insect bites and the flu and issue prescriptions to a local pharmacy. More than 80 percent of people who use telehealth services felt they were able to resolve their health concern completely through the virtual visit, according to a recent survey by telemedicine service LiveHealth Online.
For employers, telemedicine has the potential to improve access to care and reduce absenteeism, and – just as importantly – it can also bend the healthcare cost curve. At a cost of about $50 on the higher end of the fee scale, telemedicine represents a significantly lower cost alternative to an urgent care or ER visit – which can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars. While telehealth isn’t appropriate for most ER visits, think about the savings from even a few ER visits for colds or rashes during hours when ER is the only choice for many people.
Most telehealth services charge a flat fee for a consultation and some accept insurance plans. So, you may end up paying the same co-pay as if you went into the doctor’s office. As we compile data on telemedicine services, we’ve found that LiveHealth Online has saved some self-insured businesses as much as $89 per visit.
While your primary care provider should always be your first call if the office is open, telemedicine is a great option if it’s inconvenient to leave work or home and go to a doctor’s office. And in Nevada, which has one of the lowest doctor-to-patient ratios in the nation, getting in to see your doctor on short notice isn’t always easy. Virtual visits can also help hospitals and urgent care centers off-load some of the more easily treated cases – the colds and flus and seasonal allergies – to free up the waiting rooms so doctors can focus on patients who need in-person care.
Mike Murphy is president of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Nevada.