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Seattle company Carena provides Virtual Clinics, a tech platform that supports telehealth appointments. (Carena Photo)

The U.S. has a huge healthcare problem. The country spends more per capita on healthcare than any other country in the world, and the industry and patients alike are desperate for solutions that lower cost without compromising on care.

Telehealth — remote doctor’s visits enabled by technology — has emerged as a viable, if somewhat controversial, solution. Now a new study on telehealth use in four U.S. states found that it can save patients a huge amount: about $100 per visit in fees and lost time and resources.

The study, which was conducted by health insurance provider Regence, compared medical claims data from Regence customers using telehealth to that of customers who went to a traditional primary care, urgent care or emergency room visit. The patients were in Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Washington state.

Not only were the fees for telehealth visits lower, the study also calculated that these visits save patients a significant amount in travel and wasted time. Median-income patients saved roughly $25 per visit, but high-income patients saved almost $40 per visit.

Despite the savings, telehealth services still aren’t hugely popular or widely used. One reason is the fragmented and often confusing healthcare landscape, but another is simply that patients don’t know about it.

“Telehealth’s greatest challenge right now is a lack of awareness and familiarity,” Regence telehealth expert Brodie Dychinco said in an email interview. “Most health plans cover telehealth, but many people are not aware that it is a covered benefit.”

Patients’ perceptions of telehealth are also a challenge: Because it is still such a new option, many people don’t even think of telehealth when they need medical care.

“When people are sick we tend to make decisions based on habit and are less likely to try new things. We have been taught to rush to the emergency room or urgent care center for all concerns, even though they are not always necessary, are more expensive and often have longer wait times than telehealth options,” Dychinco said. “Telehealth’s success will require changing that behavior.”

A mobile app from Seattle company 98point6 lets users have text-based doctors visits from anywhere using the company’s ‘virtual clinic.’ (98point6 Photo)

Another concern is the episodic nature of telehealth services. These services often match a customer with a doctor that they have never seen before and who doesn’t have a history with them.

“The research that’s been going on for decades pretty well shows that both patients’ experiences with health care and the outcomes of that care are related to continuity,” public health researcher Aaron Katz told GeekWire in a previous interview.

That continuity is “the knowledge that a provider has of you as an individual, of your life, of your life circumstance, and your history going back. And an episodic interaction with a provider doesn’t carry that historical knowledge at all,” Katz said.

That means a patient who has a transactional telehealth experience might not get the same quality of care that they would get from seeing their regular doctor.

But in many situations, telehealth can be a good stand-in for expensive emergency room visits or not seeing a doctor at all.

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