eConsults, often referred to as eVisits, video consults, or telehealth services, have been available to a limited extent for many years. However, they are now beginning to enjoy greater momentum in the market, as deployments and use cases expand. eConsults, which allow consumers to “see” a medical professional outside of a clinical setting or allow physicians to remotely consult on patient care in a medical environment, are beginning to disrupt traditional patient care pathways in a number of ways.
Health systems, payers, and providers are beginning to see the potential in eConsults and are investing accordingly. One example is Mercy Health System, the fifth largest Catholic health care system in the United States that serves Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, with outreach ministries in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. The company has invested in virtual care and is building a facility solely dedicated to delivering telehealth services across its care centers.
There are a number of drivers for this market that are helping adoption grow, including:
- Broadband and Devices. In the consumer eConsult sector, the ubiquity of residential broadband and faster mobile broadband connections makes the end-user video experience better. In addition, increased PC, laptop, tablet, and smartphone penetration means more consumers have a highly-capable interface device for telehealth.
- Awareness. As more remote consultation services become available in the clinical setting and direct to consumers, and as more providers roll out eConsults to their patient bases, awareness is increasing.
- Expanding Availability and Choice. In the early days, eConsults in the clinical environment were limited in terms of availability and services provided. On the consumer side, providers used videoconferencing via services such as Skype, and the types of care provided were limited. The growth in the number of vendors offering enterprise-grade eConsult services, applications, and hardware enables more choices for both physician-to-consumer consultations as well as physician-to-physician interactions.
- Integration and Compliance. Once a big hurdle, early eConsult applications were limited in terms of integration into electronic health records (EHR) and did not offer the compliance and secure measures required by healthcare providers. Today, many vendors now have integration capabilities along with HIPAA-compliant applications.
- Cost. On the consumer side of the equation, costs have reached a level that is equal to, or in many cases lower than, the cost of seeing a physician in a medical setting. Costs may increase over time as more specialist care becomes available, however they are likely to remain lower than the cost of going to the doctor’s office or hospital.
- Reimbursements. More insurance companies are reimbursing for eConsults the same way they reimburse for traditional doctor’s office visits. For example, United Healthcare has begun covering eConsults, Kaiser Permanente is expanding its remote consultation services in some markets, and Medicare and Medicaid pay for at least some types of telemedicine.
- New Form Factors. New form factors allow for new use cases and an overall expansion of telehealth. For example, some companies are experimenting with telepresence robots that will move around the hospital and visit patients in their rooms. Others, such as swyMED, are partnering to build portable EMT kits for emergency responders.
- New Use Cases. The use cases for eConsults have also grown. Once limited to the clinical setting and for acute care, they have expanded to support other specialties, into the home, and other non-clinical environments. We will talk more about this in an upcoming blog post.
The most important driver for eConsults is the need to reduce healthcare spending, demonstrate ROI, and demonstrate greater efficiencies. As eConsults have grown, more case studies are available that show the benefits of deployment. An example of just one success story comes from AMD Telemedicine. These types of results provide decision makers with more confidence in their eConsult investments, and will be an important factor in the growth of this market.
Tractica believes that eConsults will be a valuable service for both consumers and medical professionals alike, and will be increasingly adopted by a range of players in the healthcare ecosystem in the years to come. We will explore this topic in greater detail in a forthcoming research report on the topic.