Published in Health Care

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: Telehealth options move from novelty to norm

BY Sunday, October 27, 2019 04:00pm

half-decade ago, it was a novelty to see your doctor through Skype or a video conference on your smartphone when you felt ill. 

Now telehealth is becoming the norm, a product of the digital age and a move by health care providers to improve access for patients at a lower cost. Doctors and hospitals increasingly are using the technology to connect with patients, attract and retain patients, and stay on the leading edge of medicine.

That’s according to data from a national physician survey by American Well, a Boston-based telehealth platform.

The results show more than three-quarters of U.S. hospitals now have a telehealth service or are in the process of implementing a program. That’s helped to drive up physician interest, with 69 percent of those surveyed last December by American Well saying they’re willing to use telehealth, up from 57 percent three years earlier.

The actual use of video visits grew during the same period. Twenty-two percent of responding physicians say they’ve used video visits to see patients, which compares to just 5 percent in 2015. Another 50 percent are “very likely” or “likely” to begin using telehealth within three years.

“When this is applied to the entire professionally active physician population, the implication is that physician adoption of telehealth is at an inflection point,” according to a report on the American Well survey. The report projected 341,000 to 591,000 of the 970,000 active physicians nationwide will adopt video visits by 2022.

The younger the doctor, the more apt they are to use telehealth options. Of the doctors answering the American Well survey, 77 percent of respondents between 35 and 44 years old were willing to use video visits to see patients, versus 60 percent of doctors 55 and older.

Likewise, the younger the patient, the more open they are to using video visits to see a doctor. Nearly two-thirds of overall consumers answering a separate survey by American Well said they were willing to use telehealth. That rises to 74 percent for 18 to 34 year olds and 72 percent for 35 to 44 years olds.

For doctors who have yet to adopt video visits, consider this: One-quarter of consumers are willing to switch their primary care physician to one that offers telehealth. That rate is slightly higher for Millennials and people 45 to 54 years old.

Beyond primary care visits, telehealth offers a way to connect medical specialists to patients for consultations. That’s particularly helpful for patients who live in rural markets and have difficulty traveling distances to a specialists’ office.

In West Michigan, Bronson Healthcare in Kalamazoo joined the telehealth movement in June by launching the 24-hour BronsonConnect Video Visit that enables patients with minor illnesses or injuries to see a doctor via a smartphone, tablet or computer. A video visit costs $59 and is covered by many health insurers.

Bronson Healthcare eventually intends to extend BronsonConnect Video Visit to specialists, said Laurel Barber, chief operating officer for Bronson Medical Group.

“Even though we’re starting telehealth with direct-to-consumer urgent-care type visits, we have plans to expand and include specialty access,” Barber said. “At some point, for example, a patient in South Haven or Decatur could have a virtual consult with a specialist elsewhere. That would really help to meet that demand.”

A key driver of the move to telehealth comes from the willingness of employers to incorporate it into their employee health benefits. Annual cost surveys this year illustrate that trend.

The National Business Group on Health, for instance, reported in August that “nearly all” of the large employers answering its 2019 cost survey planned to offer telehealth in 2020 for minor medical issues. More than eight in 10 planned to include telehealth services for mental health in 2020, a rate that could grow to 95 percent by 2022, according to the National Business Group on Health.

The most recent move into video visits in West Michigan was in mental health. Spectrum Health and Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services recently launched a teletherapy service to widen access to behavioral health care across the state.

The service uses the Spectrum Health Now mobile app to treat anxiety, depression, grief, stress and sadness. Adult patients using the app can get assistance within 48 hours from behavioral health providers from Spectrum Health or Pine Rest.

The teletherapy service is covered by most health insurers, according to an announcement from Pine Rest and Spectrum Health, which have run their own telehealth services for years.

Spectrum Health launched video visits for primary care in 2015 to treat minor conditions such as fever, allergies and rashes. The service recently surpassed 100,000 visits. Spectrum Health also provides a telemedicine service for patients to connect with medical specialists.

Pine Rest has offered telehealth services since 2013 and provided 25,000 video visits in the last year.

The teletherapy service launches after a recent study by the Michigan Health Endowment Fund showed that 46 percent of people with anxiety disorders and 53 percent of people with depressive episodes go untreated partly because of provider shortages.

“Ten years from now, I hope our community can say we’ve figured out the mental health access problem. Partnering with Spectrum Health is one great step toward that goal,” Pine Rest President and CEO Mark Eastburg said.

Initial access to the Spectrum/Pine Rest teletherapy service is available by calling 1-844-322-7374. People with suicidal thoughts or more urgent behavioral health needs should call 911 or go to the local Emergency Department or call the confidential National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which is free and available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

A July report by the Ann Arbor-based Altarum Institute that detailed problems with access to mental health care in Michigan listed advancing the use of telepsychiatry, especially in rural areas where provider shortages are the most acute, among its recommendations.

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