Are you ready to visit your doctor … by iPhone?
American Well is banking on it.
You may not recognize the name, but the company is a key player in telemedicine: American Well provides telehealth kiosks and software to most of the nation’s health plans, leading hospitals like Cleveland Clinic, and major employers like Oracle.
“Our wingspan is 120 million people,” says CEO Roy Schoenberg.
And on Monday, Schoenberg’s company is making a play to become one of the biggest names in all of health care. American Well will unveil its “Telehealth 2.0″ suite of products and services at the American Telemedicine Association’s trade show in Los Angeles.
American Well’s audacious goal: To shift patient care out of doctors’ offices, and toward smartphones and tablets. To have the nation’s physicians not just on demand for urgent crises, but available to manage follow-up care, too.
“We [want to] take telehealth that was used as a convenience measure for patients, and put it in the hands of physicians,” says Schoenberg.
Telehealth’s moment is arriving
When industry analysts talk about the “Uber for healthcare,” they tend to focus on services like Pager and Heal, which allow users to summon a doctor for house calls.
But those platforms have had limited success. There are only so many doctors available to drive from house to house, after all.
And the reality is that most of our health care doesn’t need a live doctor.
- Increasingly, American health care revolves around getting prescriptions refilled, or behaviors adjusted — and regular monitoring by virtual caregivers may do the trick.
- Data suggests that video visits with doctors are just as effective as visits in person.
- Nearly half of the consumers responding to the Advisory Board’s consumer choice survey said they would consider an email or webcam visit the next time they needed medical care for a cold, flu, or similar illness.
So why haven’t virtual visits caught on?
One major reason is that for many doctors, telehealth just didn’t pay. A 2014 survey found that 62% of respondents received lower reimbursement or no pay at all for telemedicine services.
But that’s changing.
Medicare is beginning to reimburse providers for a limited number of telehealth services. The last Congress considered nearly 60 bills to expand telemedicine reimbursement and adoption, and more legislation is now on the table, RockHealth’s Sarah Jacobson and Teresa Wang note.
And UnitedHealthcare last Thursday made a major announcement: The nation’s largest private insurer says it will pay doctors just as much to do a video visit as an in-person one.
American Well’s ‘Telehealth 2.0′ Push
Schoenberg says that American Well’s new app for physicians will offer a suite of services, including integration with Apple’s biometrics, and more focus on ongoing care and management of patients.
“We’ve been developing these capabilities for a year and a half,” he says. “Doctors can now download an app with the entire functionality they need, right on their phone, to care for their patient panel.”
Believing that more doctors will join its network, the company is also encouraging doctors to install screens and kiosks that allow patients to connect with specialists. “We want every primary care practice to become a multispecialty practice,” Schoenberg says.
American Well is also ramping up its Uber-like ability to match patients and doctors: The company’s software pings select physicians to see if they’re available, and moves on to the next doctor within twenty seconds. Schoenberg boasts that when a patient uses American Well, the company’s algorithm can match that patient with a doctor in two minutes.
While American Well’s goals are audacious, it faces some practical hurdles.
For example, Schoenberg foresees doctors easily shifting between their real and virtual waiting rooms, turning on their iPhones and taking on more patients using American Well’s apps when they have downtime. But most doctors routinely report they’re already overwhelmed with demand.
And the cultural shift isn’t for every doctor, especially older ones. I informally polled about 10 doctors, and while most said they understood the value of virtual visits, all said they preferred to see patients in the office if possible.
There’s also a potential downside for patients: Over-use.
Just think of how the smartphone has changed our consumption habits. I find myself increasingly calling Uber out of laziness, not necessity; knowing that a car can come on command means that I now dawdle instead of hustling to meet friends or see movies.
If a physician’s available by phone app, and the visit’s covered by insurance, what’s to stop the worried well from unnecessarily checking in with a doctor?
American Well’s announcement is the latest reminder: The telehealth industry is on the verge of a major moment.
Venture capitalists invested nearly $300 million in telemedicine last year, RockHealth notes. American Well alone raised $81 million in private investment.
And holdouts — from Medicare to medical directors — are coming around.
“Five years ago, this was missionary work to explain the value” of virtual visits to health insurers, Schoenberg says.
“Now there’s no question,” he adds. “When we sit in front of them, the ROI conversation doesn’t happen anymore.”