Health insurers and telehealth companies say virtual primary care is taking off


  • Many insurers and telehealth companies have launched virtual primary care programs amid the pandemic.
  • Some say they are starting to see some promising results, like better health outcomes and lower costs.
  • They bet the future of primary care is virtual.
  • This article is part of a series called “The Future of Health Care” which explores how technology is driving innovation in health care development.

Virtual primary care can be more than a fad in the pandemic era.

Over the past two years, health insurers like Humana, Oscar Health and UnitedHealthcare, and

companies like Doctor on Demand and Teladoc have launched health plans and programs that encourage patients to see a primary care physician online.

In some cases, these programs were underway before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the crisis prompted companies to roll them out faster to provide patients with a safe and convenient way to get care when in-person options were limited. .

Now, the companies that have led virtual primary care say there are signs it will remain a staple of healthcare in the future.

Insurers and telehealth providers are starting to see promising early results, like improved health outcomes and lower costs, which they say indicate the future of primary care is virtual.

Head of Marianna Spanos, VP of Virtual Care at Oscar Health

Marianna Spanos, VP of Virtual Care at Oscar Health

Oscar Health

“A new standard is being set for what it means to have convenient access to high quality care and providers who are truly invested in your long-term health and well-being,” said Marianna Spanos , vice president of virtual care at Oscar Health. .

Some data suggests that companies that offer health coverage to their workers are quickly adopting health plans that encourage patients to seek virtual care.

A Credit Suisse survey in September of more than 400 health benefit managers in companies across the country found that 15% of them plan to offer a first virtual health plan to workers in 2022, and 20% are interested in exploring the option. They said they expected virtual first plans to save them about 6% of health plan costs, according to the survey.

That’s a pretty good acceptance rate for such a new option, given that many companies tend to wait for a new product to take hold in a market before offering it to their own employees, the company said. Credit Suisse analyst AJ Rice.

Oscar said virtual care accounts for up to 20% of all primary care in some markets

New York-based Oscar Health piloted its virtual primary care plans in 2019 and 2020 before launching them more widely to commercially insured individuals and families in January 2021. The plans allow people to opt for primary care online free of charge.

Spanos said she was encouraged by the early results. Many people who signed up for the program either did not have a primary care doctor before or were looking for a new one, she said, and Oscar data shows they are using it to build ongoing relationships. with a doctor – not for a second opinion or to supplement other care. Members who choose to go virtual span all age groups, she said.

In some Oscar markets, virtual providers account for 15-20% of all primary care uses among health insurer members, she said. She declined to give specific enrollment figures.

Early data also shows that emergency department spending for people using virtual primary care is about 13% lower than for others on the plan who do not use the program, after adjusting for l ‘age and severity of conditions, Spanos said.

Doctor On Demand and Humana say virtual primary care cuts costs

Doctor on demand

The Doctor on Demand patient interface.

Doctor on demand

Doctor On Demand, which partners with employers and health insurers like Humana to deliver virtual primary care, has also found it resonates with patients and lowers their costs.

Robin Glass, president of the telehealth company, told Insider that the number of people served by the company’s virtual primary care practice has increased nine-fold since its launch in 2019, although she declined to say exactly. how many people the practice serves.

Company data shows members see their virtual primary care physicians more than twice each on average, and those repeat visits translate to better outcomes and lower costs.

For one of his health plan clients, unnecessary doctor visits fell 24% across all virtual primary care members, Glass said. For this health plan, the cost of care for members who have had at least one visit with the virtual care team has fallen by 35%, Glass said.

“We’re really optimistic about how the model works,” said Glass.

Humana, who launched their virtual primary care plan with Doctor on Demand in 2019, said early results show members using the program have significantly lower costs than those not participating, a spokesperson said. company word. The spokesperson declined to provide more details on the number of people on the plan or their costs.

But Christopher Hunter, chairman of the insurer and military operations group, told Humana’s Investor Day in June that the plan was “really taking off.”

Humana first tested the plan with small businesses in Florida and Texas that offer health coverage to their employees. The program has since expanded to a total of 15 states and larger companies, the spokesperson told Insider. He plans to launch a version of the virtual primary care plan for his own workers this month, the spokesperson said.

More companies are launching virtual primary care programs

In another sign that the move towards virtual primary care is not going to end, more and more health insurers, including Aetna and regional insurer CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, have unveiled programs that provide patients with the opportunity to obtain their care. routine online.

Baltimore-based CareFirst last month unveiled a new virtual primary care medical practice called CloseKnit for business members who don’t see a regular doctor for reasons like long wait times for appointments or limited hours, said Mary Jane Favazza, CEO of CloseKnit. .

Favazza said the goal of opening the practice was to lead to more rational use of the healthcare system for patients who previously did not have a primary care physician. People with primary care physicians tend to receive the right amount of care at the right time, resulting in better quality and lower costs, she said.

For virtual primary care to last, businesses will need to cut costs, said Jonathan Bush, executive chairman of Firefly Health, a virtual care startup expanding into healthcare benefits for small businesses. The convenience advantage is not enough.

“The key is to take the big giant pre-trial offer that everyone has received thanks to COVID and turn it into something better financially, spiritually, clinically and emotionally,” Bush said. “If you don’t create economic value, it’s not going to stay.”

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