Physician shortages and patient demand for convenient services continue to strain today's healthcare system. Telemedicine, using real-time interactive technology to provide care, has the potential to deliver vitally important relief, overcoming long drives and reducing extended waiting time to reach a qualified provider.
Telemedicine can also "right fit" care by addressing the problem or providing interim steps of care until an in-person visit can occur, explained Cynthia LeRouge, professor at FIU Business and director of the college's Master of Science in Health Informatics and Analytics program.
Virtual care has become a necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic, driven by social distancing requirements between physicians and patients. Forecasts indicate the U.S. telehealth market is expected to reach nearly $10 billion by the end of 2020. Year-over-year growth reached a five-year high the week of May 11, with sales up 287% compared to 2019, according to a report from consumer analytics company Second Measure.
A recent study from FIU Business, which was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research looked at Virtual Care Centers (VCCs). A VCC is a form of on-demand telemedicine initiated by a patient to remote healthcare practitioners through live video, audio or instant messaging for urgent care services for non-critical situations. Practitioners deliver medical care into patients' homes via cell phone, computer, tablet or wearable devices.
Early adopters of VCCs indicated that the most common conditions treated virtually include acute respiratory infection, urinary tract infection, influenza, cough, dermatitis, digestive ailments, ear pain, mental health conditions and chronic disease management, such as for diabetes and hypertension.
"It's a modern-day house call," said LeRouge, who has been a telemedicine researcher for the last 17 years and co-authored the study, adding that VCCs may reduce emergency room visits for minor conditions. "VCCs will change the way consumers look at the first step for that backyard bite, stomach ailment or flu."
For this latest study, academic researchers collected and analyzed data from telephone interviews with 29 VCC experts representing the healthcare system, primary care practice, insurance company and telemedicine vendor sectors. Participants held roles in strategy or business development, implementation, marketing, administrative operations and clinical operations.
The value proposition for an organization to launch consumer-driven virtual care offerings includes acquiring and retaining patients, reducing unnecessary service costs and controlling costs for self-insured organizations, said LeRouge.
Virtual care is covered by some insurance providers. Driven by COVID-19, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services temporarily covers certain telemedicine costs.
This service generally costs less than $50 per visit compared to an average per-visit cost of $130 for urgent care or $740 for an emergency room visit for a similar low-severity condition.
"Even when not covered, the cost isn't prohibitive for many people seeking convenience or with immediate concerns," said LeRouge.
Researchers found that across the interviewed sectors, females between the ages of 25 and 45 with young children were among the most frequent VCC users. Organizations also identified busy professionals, college students and older adults or retirees as emerging user groups.