The Value of Virtual Care: Needs a Healthy Debate

by Harry Wang | Mar. 9, 2017

Health Affairs, a well-recognized health journal, recently published a study on telehealth (what we call “virtual care”) this week. The article contains plenty of valuable information, and the media that reported on this study used headlines such as:

  • “Are virtual doctor visits really cost-effective? Not so much, study says,” from Kaiser Health News
  • “Telehealth drives up healthcare utilization and spending,” from Modern Healthcare
  • “Remote access to doctors may drive up health costs, Harvard study says,” from the Boston Globe

These headlines irked me just like our research is sometimes misquoted by the press based on how they want to grab reader’s attention.

Modern Healthcare’s headline is most troubling in that it sounds like a conclusion, yet as industry insiders know, there are many details and nuances in this young industry that such a categorically conclusive statement is misleading at best.

The study to which the Health Affairs article refers to used a four-year-old dataset (2011-2013) from a single state (California), examined only the direct-to-consumer virtual care services, and based its utilization and cost analysis mostly on a specific group of conditions (acute respiratory infections). The study’s author acknowledged these limitations but these details were de-emphasized in various news articles I have read.

The spike of interest from employers, insurers, and healthcare systems in virtual care solutions and services has occurred mostly since 2013. Before then, these industry stakeholders were still debating whether or not to adopt virtual care solutions. Since then, the discussion has shifted to “how” best to implement virtual care solutions, which has a significant impact on patient utilization and cost-benefit analysis.

Two virtual care trends we have seen in recent years include:

  • 1) the adoption of virtual care solutions by health systems and hospitals that can optimize operations based on severity of patient symptoms and their access options, and 
  • 2) the diversification of virtual care use cases from predominantly non-emergent but acute care episodes (like acute respiratory infection) to new ones such as chronic care management, post-discharge follow-up, preventive care delivery, etc. 

Each has its unique set of user profiles, service utilization attributes, and cost/benefit levers.

Overlooking these important trends and use cases and making a blank statement that “telehealth drives up healthcare utilization and spending” in an article’s headline is not only misleading to readers, but also unfair to this young industry. The virtual care industry needs continued research on what works and what can be improved and optimized.  And the industry needs a healthy debate on the value of virtual care to keep business decision makers informed, unbiasedly.

Our own research, contained in a press release this week announcing the 2017 Connected Health Summit agenda, reveals that consumers show a strong interest in virtual care solutions. Industry stakeholders need to channel this consumer desire into their business use case development efforts and come up with service options that are win-wins for both consumers and themselves. 

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