GRAND RAPIDS — A year ago, Joe Brennan felt excited when Spectrum Health’s MedNow recorded 50 patient visits a week as people started to use the telemedicine service.
As consumers increasingly become aware of telemedicine as a lower-cost and convenient way to see a doctor, MedNow currently records 50 or more visits a day and has been far exceeding Spectrum Health’s original quarter-to-quarter growth expectations of 30 percent.
In the first quarter of Spectrum Health’s 2017 fiscal year, the July-to-September period, MedNow visits grew 49 percent from the previous three-month period. The telemed service grew another 79 percent in the subsequent quarter over the prior period.
“It’s really starting to grow upon itself,” said Brennan, the senior director for MedNow who expects the growth rate to accelerate as telemedicine further takes hold with doctors and consumers.
“Obviously, there’s apprehension with anything new. (A year ago) that was kind of the phase we were at. People were apprehensive because they knew nothing of it,” Brennan said. “But now there are so many stories and we have the word of mouth with people saying, ‘I saw somebody in 10 minutes on my own couch. I’m never going into an office if I don’t have to.’”
Launched in late 2015, MedNow was the first West Michigan-based telemedicine platform in the market. It has since been joined by Answer Health on Demand, a venture between the emergency medical group Emergency Care Specialists PC in Grand Rapids and Answer Health, which represents independent physicians in the region.
Answer Health on Demand and MedNow, plus a service Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan started offering members in 2016 in a partnership with Boston-based American Well, participate in the rapidly growing field of telemedicine that’s quickly altering how consumers connect with physicians for treatment of minor medical conditions such as a cough, flu, rash or fever.
The platforms provide new ways to access care, particularly during off hours such as evenings and weekends or for patients who are unable to make an office appointment or get to a doctor’s facility.
TOOLS TO STAY RELEVANT
Answer Health on Demand is selling its platform directly to employers to offer as a benefit to employees, as well as to independent physician practices across the state that want to offer patients a telemedicine option but are unable to develop their own service.
“We’re becoming a digital marketplace for practices,” said Answer Health on Demand Executive Director Barry Brown. “The one- or two-physician practice can’t afford the technology they need to stay relevant in today’s health care market.”
Answer Health on Demand recently had about 30 independent physician practices “queued up” and “at various stages of readiness” to sign on to the platform, Brown said. He hopes to sign up 50 to 60 practices within a couple of months.
Interest among independent practices has been much higher than Brown anticipated.
“They want to offer telemed,” he said. “They recognize the value.”
Brown also plans to reach out to health systems across the state to talk about their possible adoption of the Answer Health platform for doctors.
Answer Health on Demand presently uses 30 care providers from Emergency Care Specialists to staff the platform. The service recently signed an agreement with Great Lakes Health Connect, enabling physicians seeing a patient virtually to access their electronic medical records. Physicians can also send their reports to the patient’s primary care doctor via the health information exchange.
Answer Health on Demand has agreements with Priority Health and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan to cover virtual visits, as does MedNow. It also has a deal with ASR Health Benefits in Grand Rapids, an organization that works with self-insured employers.
CONVENIENCE FOR CARE
Beyond providing urgent care virtually, telemedicine platforms also offer a convenient connection with medical specialists, alleviating the need for some patients to travel long distances for an office visit. Spectrum Health also uses MedNow to monitor patients with a chronic medical condition and to manage their care.
At Holland Home in Grand Rapids, a senior care provider, telemedicine technology allows for the monitoring of clients in their homes, said Carolyn Flietstra, strategic leader of home and community services. Registered nurses remotely monitor issues such as blood pressure, weight, pulse, oxygen levels, “evaluate how everyone’s doing today,” and then follow up with Holland Home patients and a physician as needed.
“It’s a really cool way to have a visit every day without having someone come into your home every day,” Flietstra said. “They (patients) feel much safer with that, but it’s not as intrusive as having someone come to your home every day.”
Answer Health is considering its platform for use in employer wellness programs, as well as for virtual visits with medical specialties such as ob/gyn, pediatrics, cardiology, physical therapy and rehabilitation.
“And this is just the beginning,” Brown said.
Seeing telemedicine as a value, employers are fast adopting the technology as part of their health benefits. Virtual visits typically cost less than half of an office visit for employees to see a doctor.
Among the 133 large U.S. companies that answered the National Business Group on Health’s 2016 benefits survey, 70 percent said they offered telemedicine as a benefit. Those companies collectively employed 15 million people.
“Virtually all” employers indicated they planned to offer telemedicine as part of their health benefits by 2020, according to the National Business Group on Health.
Mercer’s annual survey of health benefits found 59 percent of large employers offered telemedicine as a benefit in 2016. The rate was higher for employers with more than 20,000 employees, at 79 percent.
That compares to 30 percent for all large employers in 2015, and 44 percent for those with 20,000 or more employees, according to Mercer.
MedNow recently surpassed 15,000 virtual visits, about 9,000 of which were for urgent care patients, Brennan said.
One the nation’s largest telemedicine platforms, Lewisville, Texas-based Teladoc Inc., reported in January that it had 952,000 visits in 2016, a 59-percent increase from the prior period.
NEARING A TIPPING POINT?
Even with those kinds of growth rates, telemedicine remains “something that people are getting to know,” Brennan said. He expects that to change quickly as the adoption rate continues to grow and hits a tipping point where consumers demand their doctors offer a telemedicine service.
“It will become an expectation,” Brennan said.
In a Harris Poll conducted last fall for American Well, nearly two-thirds of the 4,000 adult respondents said they were willing to see a doctor over video. One in five said they would switch their primary care physician to one who offered video visits. That percentage rises to 26 percent for 18 to 34 year olds, and to 34 percent for parents with children under age 18.