was so easy,” she said.
Doctors have used telemedicine for years to monitor patients or reach those in remote locations. Now more employers are encouraging people covered under their health plans to seek care virtually for several reasons.
Telemedicine can reduce time spent away from the job, and it also can cost half the price of a doctor’s visit, which might top $100 for someone with a high-deductible plan. However, those savings can be negated if telemedicine’s convenience causes people to overuse it.
Walmart said it cut the cost for virtual visits to give another care option to the more than one million people covered by its health benefits.
Employers aren’t the only ones pushing the technology.
The drugstore chains CVS Health and Walgreens are promoting apps that let customers connect to doctors. Some insurers like Oscar Health are offering it for free to customers as a first line of treatment.
Ease of use is one of the reasons researchers and telemedicine providers think the practice will become more widespread in several areas of care. Those include dermatology and follow-up doctor visits after a surgery or medical procedure.
A virtual therapist
Mental health visits are another area ripe for virtual care because
patients can feel more comfortable talking to a therapist in their own home, said Boyce of Insight Telepsychiatry, which delivers mental health care in about 30 states.
Boyce said people also like the anonymity of a virtual visit.
Mental health visits were the most common use of telemedicine by patients until primary care overtook that specialty a few years ago, Harvard’s Dr. Ateev Mehrotra and other researchers found in a recent study of claims data from a large insurer.
Research firm IHS Markit estimates that telemedicine visits in the U.S. will soar from 23 million in 2017 to 105 million by 2022.
But even then, they will probably amount to only about one out of every 10 doctor visits, said senior analyst Roeen Roashan.
Mdlive CEO Rich Berner said telemedicine is like the digital video recorder Tivo, which took a while to catch on with viewers.
“People were so used to doing things the other way that it just took a little while to kind of really go mainstream,” he said. “But when it did, it went mainstream big-time.”