The study examined 2011-2013 claims information for over 300,000 people insured through the California California Public Employees’ Retirement System, which despite the name provides health benefits to active state employees as well as retirees. It targeted common acute respiratory infections (sinus infections, bronchitis and related) to determine patterns of provider utilization and the change after the introduction of telehealth. Of that group, 981 used the Teladoc system for video consults, adopted by CalPERS in 2012.
The objective of the study was to determine whether the telehealth visits were new care or substituted for other types of care such as doctor, clinic, or ED visits. Even though the telehealth services were far cheaper–about 50 percent lower than a physician office visit and less than 5 percent the cost of a visit to the ED–they did not make up for the calculated 88 percent rise in utilization.
Similar results were reported by RAND in last year’s research on retail clinics, which estimated that 58 percent of visits for low-severity illnesses were new and not shifted from EDs or doctor’s offices. What is in common? Convenience. Convenience opens up greater use. If you have a store down the street, you may pop in daily versus once-weekly.
Updated: Some further insights from Mobihealthnews were that the study stated that telehealth visits may be more likely to result in additional costs, such as follow-up appointments, testing or prescriptions. In other words, the telehealth visit starts off less expensive, but the standard of care in follow-up adds to that initial cost.
The RAND recommendation is thus not a surprise: make more telemedicine visits a shift from office or ED to restrict telemedicine growth. Raise the cost of co-pays for the service to reduce demand. On the ‘high side’, encourage ED ‘frequent flyers’ to use telehealth services instead. Pass the painkillers. Health Affairs (abstract only; paid access required for full study), RAND Health press release.
Analysis: instead of self-doctoring, and suffering at home and in the workplace, the small group of CalPERS policyholders in the study actually used their new benefit to check their health–as intended! The additional cost is not staggering; (more…)