Several insurance companies are covering options like LiveHealth Online, a service that connects patients with doctors via video calls.
Telemedicine has been spurred in part by the Affordable Care Act, which is funneling more patients into a system plagued by physician shortages. By 2020 the U.S. will have 91,500 fewer doctors than needed, says the Association of American Medical Colleges. Telehealth providers say they help make up for this shortfall by aiding doctors in delivering services more efficiently. WellPoint says users of LiveHealth Online saved an average $71 per visit and most of them saved two to three hours of time.
The American Telemedicine Association is developing an accreditation program for telehealth providers. A bill introduced in Congress last year by Representatives Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) and Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) would create federal telecare standards.
Another benefit of the use of camera-equipped devices: remote medical connections have been made easier, and high-definition video often provides enough detail for medical professionals to make diagnoses. “Sometimes if it’s a rash, we can see the rash,” says Katherine Sandstrom, a nurse practitioner in Portland, Ore., who sees a few patients via video each week through health-services provider ZoomCare.
Virtual doctor visits can’t fully replace in-office visits, of course. There’s only so much a doctor can tell without an examination performed in-person and telemedicine visits could result in unnecessary medication. But with telehealth companies reporting double-digit revenue growth and attracting high-profile investors the option is definitely finding a niche among consumers for patient care options.