| NEW YORK
NEW YORK Dec 23 Telemedicine services, which
allow doctors to treat patients via video, are gaining
acceptance among consumers and insurance companies as it becomes
clearer when a virtual visit is appropriate, industry executives
Telemedicine has been more widely offered over the last five
years, promoted by health plans such as Cigna Inc and New
York-based insurance startup Oscar Health. As many as 15 million
people used the services this year, up 50 percent from 2013,
according to the American Telemedicine Association.
"The insurers have been adopting this at a really rapid rate
because they see benefits from better access to care," said
Jason Gorevic, chief executive of Teladoc, the largest U.S.
telemedicine provider. "It eliminates unnecessary visits to more
Teladoc is working with over 20 health plans, including
Oscar and Aetna Inc. It has gained momentum as insurers
better understand how to use the services.
Aetna plans to add virtual behavioral health consultations
for issues such as depression and anxiety. Next year
UnitedHealth Group will roll out services to
employer-sponsored and individual plans through partnerships
with Doctor on Demand, American Well and NowClinic.
On average, video-based visits cost less than $50 compared
with about $80 for a traditional doctor's visit.
"The notion of supporting people's behavioral health needs
through other channels is critical," said Rich Feifer, Aetna's
chief medical officer of national accounts.
Oscar Health offers telehealth services for free for its
100,000 members. CEO Mario Schlosser says the move has paid off,
with 91 percent of care cases resolved after the first virtual
Patients can call or use Oscar's website or mobile app,
typing in symptoms such as: "I can't stop wheezing." The
services are geared for conditions that do not require testing
for confirmation, and the on-call doctor can determine if an
in-person appointment is needed.
Patients can add photos before speaking with a doctor, who
normally calls within 9 minutes.
Some hospitals are using telemedicine as an early form of
triage for more serious conditions.
"If it's an acute problem, even though telemedicine doesn't
have the completeness of being in person, the value is
exponentially higher," said Randall Moore, president of Mercy
Virtual in Missouri, which describes itself as a virtual care
facility, in which doctors monitor patients remotely via
electronic hook-ups to medical devices; patients may be at home
or in a Mercy hospital.
At Mercy Virtual, which is part of a health system operating
in seven states, doctors keep tabs on intensive care patients
and make calls on what to do if a patient's condition worsens,
alerting on-site staff.
Moore says the provider's telemedicine program saves around
1,000 lives annually, has cut the length of stay at Mercy
hospitals by up to 40 percent, and saves $35 million each year.
Penske Truck Leasing is working with Aetna and Teladoc to
offer virtual services to its 18,000 employees, 20 percent of
whom have taken advantage, according to the company's vice
president of benefits and compensation, Joe O'Neill.
Penske offers it for free, calling it a "cost neutral"
decision that helps employees who are often on the road get
The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center saves about
$300,000 each year through its telemedicine program according to
executive director of telemedicine Natasa Sokolovich.
The new services still face hurdles. The Texas Medical Board
has tried to stop Teladoc from operating in the state, arguing
that physicians should only diagnose illnesses or prescribe
medication after seeing patients in person. State courts have
sided with Teladoc.
Other states have also fought against expansion by
increasing regulations or not recognizing the practice.
"Widespread adoption has been limited based on state
requirements on how it can be used," said Clare Krusing, a
representative with trade group America's Health Insurance
Plans. "Each state is approaching it somewhat differently."
(Reporting by Kylie Gumpert; Editing by Michele Gershberg and