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Are Virtual Doctor Visits Really Cost-Effective?

By Kaiser Health News  
   March 07, 2017

While telehealth services may boost access to a physician, they don't necessarily reduce healthcare spending, contrary to assertions by telehealth companies, research suggests.

This article first appeared March 7, 2017 on Kaiser Health News.

By Ana B. Ibarra

Consultations with doctors by phone or video conference appear to be catching on, with well over a million virtual visits reported in 2015.

The convenience of "telehealth" appeals to patients, and the notion that it costs less than an in-office visit would make it attractive to employers and health plans.

But a new study suggests that while telehealth services may boost access to a physician, they don't necessarily reduce health care spending, contrary to assertions by telehealth companies.

The study, published Monday in the journal Health Affairs, shows that telehealth prompts patients to seek care for minor illnesses that otherwise would not have induced them to visit a doctor's office.

Telehealth has been around for more than a decade, but its growth has been fueled more recently by the ubiquity of smartphones and laptops, said Lori Uscher-Pines, one of the study's authors who is a policy researcher at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif.

These virtual consultations are designed to replace more expensive visits to a doctor's office or emergency room. On average, a telehealth visit costs about $79, compared with about $146 for an office visit, according to the study. But it found that virtual visits generate additional medical use.

"What we found is contrary to what [telehealth] companies often say," Uscher-Pines told California Healthline. "We found an increase in spending for the payer."

Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

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