The hard truth is that telehealth’s future—its size, its contours—will depend a lot on what payers will be willing to pay for. Currently, commercial plans cover only a limited number of services. In addition, research suggests that there may be quality and utilization problems.
Workers still haven’t bought in. A lot hinges on this question: Do you feel comfortable getting a diagnosis or being treated for a condition by someone on a screen? Large employers especially are willing to bet that the answer is yes.
What we have here is irrational telehealth exuberance. Investors are plowing millions into startups. And even though millennials could be eager adopters, these are still early days for the industry. It may take years—and some regulatory changes—for profits to materialize.
Evaluating the quality of telemedicine care is about as easy as evaluating the quality of health care, period, and researchers are still ironing out the methodological kinks. That may be one reason research results are all over the place. This article involved reviewing nine such studies, and the findings are a mixed bag.
One area where more research is needed is on programs that mix telemental health with traditional treatment, because in many instances a combination of the two will work better than a steady diet of either. The use of telemental health as an alternative or a backup needn’t be saved for emergencies.
The CMO of Teladoc, one of the country’s largest telemedicine providers, certainly knows how to sing the praises of the industry, and handle devil’s advocate kind of questions as well. Most of Teledoc’s customers are commercial insurers and employers. Medicare? Not so much. Medicaid makes “perfect sense.”
The results can be tragic. Patients with addictions are unlikely to wait the hours or days it takes health insurers to approve the medications they need. Insurers are changing their practices, but not without some outside pressure.