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The Benefits and Drawbacks of Consumer Telehealth

Consumer telehealth has been slowly introduced into company benefit packages over the last couple years, but is proving more valuable during this time. Now, more than ever in the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, where life-threatening illnesses can be spread so easily and unknowingly from human to human and where all are advised to hunker down to protect the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions, telehealth may be seen as the alternative for treating non-critical medical issues. Additionally, as consumers continue to grow more comfortable with shopping online, people are turning to telehealth companies over traditional providers for their healthcare needs. The rising popularity of the “no visit required” model is disrupting industries from orthodontia and optometry to women’s health.

Businesses such as Warby Parker, Smile Direct Club, Nurx, Care/of, Ritual, and others allow consumers to obtain a prescription or a personalized medical recommendation without visiting a healthcare professional in person. Although consumer telehealth has its benefits, some medical professionals worry about the quality of care these services will be able to provide. Understanding why this business model has gained in popularity can help the pharmaceutical and medical device industries adapt to an ever-changing market and gain insights into consumer expectations.

Most of the popular consumer telehealth websites follow a similar format. The user first takes a test, answers a questionnaire, sends or uploads a photograph, or submits another type of data to a website. A licensed optician, doctor, or dentist then reviews the data and makes a recommendation. It could be anything from a commonly-prescribed drug to a complex tooth-straightening system based on the user’s needs. Finally, the company sends the product directly to the consumer. Companies that sell vitamins, retainers, or contraception often set up a reoccurring subscription as part of their strategy to increase revenue and simplify the process for consumers. Technological advances in the areas of 3D-printing and wearable devices has improved the quality of input data and enabled providers to make better decisions without needing to see a patient in person.

Consumer Telehealth Benefits

Consumer telehealth has found commercial success in part because it addresses the pain points of the healthcare user experience. One-third of millennials don’t have a primary care provider because they find the inconvenience of going to the doctor to outweigh the benefits. Through the “no visit required” model, the process of buying medicines and medical devices mimics the ease of online retail shopping. Consumers can use the service when it’s convenient instead of waiting days or even weeks for a doctor’s appointment or being forced to travel to an office some distance away. In turn, doctors can use their time more efficiently because the technology may shorten the amount of time a practitioner spends per patient.

By reaching those who face financial barriers or who live in an area with few medical providers, telemedicine can expand the market and improve access to healthcare. In addition to offering lower costs, these companies often provide greater price transparency and geographical reach than traditional providers (twenty percent of Americans but only ten percent of healthcare providers are located in rural areas). Nurx, a direct-to-consumer reproductive health service, targets “contraception desserts” in southeastern states such as Texas and sells contraceptive options starting at $15 for those who don’t have health insurance. Smile Direct Club’s teeth straightening systems cost around $2,200, while the average cost of traditional orthodontia ranges from $5,000 to $8,000. Smile Direct Club believes this cost differential means they are expanding the market segment for orthodontia and not simply taking patients away from established offices.

Additionally, and perhaps most critical in these uncertain times is the benefit of being able to be “seen” and “treated’ by a doctor without having to be within close proximity to other unwell and potentially contagious patients. Medical waiting rooms are often crowded and not set up for patients to be able to practice social distancing. According to the CDC, COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly by person-to-person contact. Telehealth may allow certain conditions to be diagnosed and treated without this life-threatening risk.

Potential Drawbacks of Consumer Telehealth

The industry does recognize that uses for telehealth are limited and still recommends users visit a doctor in person when a more comprehensive exam is needed. The “no visit required” model may address simple healthcare needs well, but more complicated issues are beyond its current capabilities. Many consumer telehealth services have not undergone external clinical testing and lack the data to prove the quality of their treatments is equivalent to an in-person visit.

For example, Warby Parker’s prescription check service cannot evaluate changes to progressive and bifocal lenses or reading glasses.  Personalized vitamin services like Care/of and Ritual cater to what the consumer wants, however not necessarily deficiencies they may have. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are detected most accurately through a lab-ordered blood test.

Professional organizations, including the American Optometric Association and the American Association of Orthodontics, have expressed concerns about several new telehealth companies and emphasize that they are no substitute for an in-person visit. Orthodontists have filed suit against Smile Direct Club in multiple states for failing to comply with regulations. It’s worth noting that members of these professional organizations could lose money if consumer telehealth continues to grow. According to one study, an in-person visit makes a provider an average of 30 percent more than a telehealth consultation does.

In conclusion, the growth of consumer telehealth has implications for the medical device and pharmaceutical industries as more consumers buy glasses, retainers, and prescriptions through nontraditional channels and is likely to continue in the future. Look to see innovations in home-health testing kits and other personalized medical devices to supplement these services down the road. Their popularity is likely to continue to prove that today’s consumers value price transparency, convenience, and the ability to interact digitally with their healthcare provider as well as assist with social distancing.

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Contributions by Sabrina Zirkle.

Tags: Consumer Healthcare Trends, COVID-19