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How direct-to-consumer telemedicine is challenging the traditional practice of medicine

With the invention of smartphone apps and interactive websites, telemedicine is rapidly evolving from a physician-to-physician interaction toward a direct-to-consumer (DTC) enterprise. Multiple presentations at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Telemedicine Association will address these changes.

This post is sponsored by the American Telemedicine Association.

With the invention of smartphone apps and interactive websites, telemedicine is rapidly evolving from a physician-to-physician interaction toward a direct-to-consumer (DTC) enterprise. Multiple presentations at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Telemedicine Association will address these changes and how to prepare for the next generation.

“DTC telemedicine is when a patient goes online, picks up a telephone, or goes to their smartphone and directly contacts a healthcare provider,” said Ateev Mehrotra, M.D., associate professor of healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School. “This provider is not always related to that person’s primary care provider.”

A main driver is the convenience aspect for the patient. He notes that we now expect to be able to bank or even get groceries at any time of the day or night. Patients are now looking for the same access to healthcare providers.

“It used to be that you called your doctor and they’d see you tomorrow,” said Dr. Mehrotra. “Now it may be three days to see the nurse practitioner. People are looking for more convenient alternatives and that is what is driving DTC telemedicine among patients.”

That need for convenience is a major reason why, according to ATA estimates, more than 800,000 patient consultations will take place online in 2015. Among the top groups involved in DTC telemedicine are private and group practices, healthcare systems and corporate service providers. Many insurers and payers are on board as well, as shown by their strong interest in ATA’s recently launched accreditation program for online patient consultations.

Employers are also looking at ways telemedicine can help them. Many companies are using DTC telemedicine channels to give added perks to their staffs while also helping keep down healthcare costs.

Mary Bradley is director of healthcare strategy at Pitney Bowes in Stamford, CT. Her company recently teamed up with a telemedicine company to provide services under their own name to their employees by way of a customized portal.

According to Ms. Bradley, while Pitney Bowes already had clinicians in certain offices throughout the United States, the portal has allowed them to extend care outside of the buildings where they had a presence to the smaller offices scattered across the country. This also gave employees access to a larger network of physicians.

Pitney Bowes is seeing many advantages to having these services readily available. Employees with minor complaints no longer need to take a few hours off of work to see their primary care doctors. To the extent that these trips are avoided, efficiency can be improved.

“Most users tell us that they would likely have gone to an emergency room if a physician had not been readily available,” said Ms. Bradley. “This helps Pitney Bowes keep healthcare costs down while at the same time helping our employees by lowering their out-of-pocket expenditures.”

Recently, the issue of online diagnosing and treating someone with no prior provider-patient relationship has come under scrutiny. Regulatory Boards and other authorities have raised questions about the safety and effectiveness of such DTC approaches that are based on a patient-generated medical history aided by a variety of technologies ranging from interactive video to telephone to digital data acquisition.

Dr. Mehrotra and other leading authorities on this issue will be participating in a panel discussion of DTC telemedicine during the plenary session on May 5th. Other presentations throughout the meeting will focus on issues such as app design, urgent care and telemedicine, physician incentives for providing virtual care as well as the experiences of several early adopters of the technology.

You can register for the ATA conference here.

The American Telemedicine Association is the leading international resource and advocate promoting the use of advanced remote medical technologies. ATA and its diverse membership work to fully integrate telemedicine into transformed healthcare systems to improve quality, equity and affordability of healthcare throughout the world. Learn more about ATA at AmericanTelemed.org.

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