Video Is About to Become the Way We All Visit the Doctor

THE COUNTRY’S LARGEST health insurer is putting telemedicine on par with a regular trip to the doctor’s office, effectively saying a video visit is as good as brick-and-mortar medicine.

illustration of doctor video chatting
Man at Desk Working on Laptop Computer

UnitedHealthcare today is announcing a partnership with three telemedicine companies to cover video-based doctor visits just as it covers in-person visits.

The tech set has for decades predicted that we would one day get our medical care via video chat, but it wasn’t until recently that forward-thinking physicians started taking the promise of telemedicine seriously. The decision by so influential a player in the healthcare industry to telemedicine is the strongest sign yet that the technology is entering the mainstream.

United says it will cover virtual doctor visits offered through NowClinicDoctor on Demand, and American Well. These platforms connect patients with thousands of doctors—albeit not the patient’s usual doctor—via video chat. These consultations typically cost $40 to $50 a pop, but now that United is covering these visits, members will only have to pay their usual co-pay, making virtual medicine much more affordable for more people. For now, these virtual visits will be available only to UnitedHealth’s self-funded customers, but the feature will expand to most members by next year.

According to Peter Mueller, a healthcare industry analyst at Forrester, United’s embrace of doctor visits by video is a major step for the healthcare industry. “There are a lot of pros to telemedicine,” he says.
“Convenience is one. Access is another. Then there’s the immediacy of it, too.”

In a statement, the insurer said the goal is to give people, especially those in rural areas, access to affordable quality care. Telemedicine providers said the deal validates their approach to medicine. “The consumer may not have known if we were going to help or if they’d have go to urgent care anyway,” says Adam Jackon, CEO of Doctor on Demand, who says the app has been downloaded 1 million times in 18 months. “Now that we’re part of United, it’s like, ‘Ok, United stuck their neck out and vetted these guys.”

No Office, No Problem

Of course, helping others isn’t the only motivation. By offering telemedicine services, health insurers stand to substantially lower their costs, because virtual visits are significantly cheaper than urgent care or even primary care visits. Much as online retailers did to brick-and-mortar shopping, telehealth companies have used technology to eliminate most of the overhead that contributes to the high cost of healthcare.

And United is not the only company that’s noticed. Newer insurers like Oscar, as well as established ones like WellPoint and some BlueCross BlueShield plans have also adopted telemedicine programs in recent years.

Another contributing factor to the move toward telemedicine is the Affordable Care Act. As people look to exchanges for insurance, they’re better able to shop around for insurers who promise to deliver more perks, says Mueller. “Now, these carriers are up on the shelf with other carriers,” he says. “And in the business-to-consumer world they need to offer people a lot more.”

Then there’s the fact that the Affordable Care Act brought many more people into a healthcare system already facing a shortage of primary care physicians. According to Jackson, virtual visits can help hospitals and urgent care centers offload some of their more easily treated cases in order to focus on patients who really need in-person care. “These visits keep the colds and flus and allergies and bumps and bruises out of the offline settings,” Jackson says. “That frees up the waiting rooms, so doctors can treat more pressing issues.”

A Question of Trust

Still, telemedicine will only take off with insurers’ support if patients actually trust their insurance companies, which far too many Americans do not. There will be those who view what United is doing as an attempt to cut costs at the expense of more personalized care. But Mueller says that type of criticism misses one important point: “It’s not mandated, so if it’s not for you or you don’t trust it you have other options.”

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