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Direct to consumer telehealth offers consumers and providers a quick and easy means of collaborating on episodic care. But what are the ideal uses for this type of service?

By Eric Wicklund

October 02, 2020 – Direct-to-consumer telehealth has been one of the stalwarts of the past decade, offering providers and consumers the opportunity to collaborate online without the hassle of appointments, offices or even prior contact.

Most often the service is episodic and transactional, says Joe Kvedar, vice president of connected health at Partners Health and president of the American Telemedicine Association, who moderated a virtual panel on the topic at this year’s ATA online conference in June. The connected health platform enables two parties to come together and solve a quick and easy health problem, with minimal emotional interaction or long-term requirements.

Many believe it’s “the next iteration of consumer-facing care,” says Patrick Carroll, chief medical officer for Hims & Hers, an online health and wellness company, who was part of the ATA panel. He and others envision a future where consumers can go online and shop for healthcare services as they do for clothes, books, airline tickets and other product and services.

So what are the most popular – and effective – uses for a DTC telehealth platform? In no particular order, these are the five that have drawn the most attention.

Non-Acute Emergency Care. This is the platform that sparked the most interest in the early days of connected care, offering quick access to a care provider to treat colds, coughs, infections and other minor ailments that would otherwise require a trip to the doctor’s office or hospital or even go untreated.

While originally the platform was designed by telehealth companies as an add-on to medical practices and hospitals, siphoning off people who would fill waiting rooms and cause delays for those needing more urgent care, health systems of late have been designing or contracting out for their own DTC telehealth services. Noting the popularity of telehealth vendors and urgent care clinics, they see the service as a means of competing with those providers, keeping their own patients in the system and attracting new patients.

“Healthcare in its current form is the biggest disruptor to our lives,” says Lisa Ide, chief medical officer of Zipnosis, one of the leaders in the DTC virtual care arena, also a panelist at the ATA event. DTC platforms offer an opportunity to simplify the process and reduce the disruption, particularly for issues that really only need a quick conversation between doctor and patient.

The platform is also proving popular with health plans and large businesses who want to provide care for their members and employees while cutting down on healthcare costs, both by reducing expensive office and ER visits and compelling people to seek care for small health issues before they blossom into more serious health concerns.

Niche and Health and Wellness Consults. This is where the growth – and the money – lies.

Once the realm of magazine ads and late-night TV infomercials offering discreet medical help by dialing the phone, health and wellness companies have surged in popularity and legitimacy through telehealth.  Both consumers and care providers are eyeing online services for everything from hair loss and weight control to sexual function and sexually transmitted diseases – sensitive issues about which people would prefer chatting with someone via phone or online portal over visiting a doctor or clinic.

The online platform not only gives consumers an opportunity to find help for a health issue; it gives care providers a new avenue – even a new business line – to offer their services

“We are connecting physicians with patients – in a way that isn’t revolutionary,” says Melynda Barnes, senior vice president of medical affairs and research at Ro, clinical director of the company’s new Rory site for women and a panelist at the ATA event. “We are leveraging technology to let physicians and providers operate at the top of their license.”

Barnes says the industry is a valuable partner to traditional health systems. Some are even partnering with online companies to handle patients referred for further care.

“We actually see ourselves as a new entry point to reconnect them to the healthcare system,” she says.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counseling. The nation was struggling with an increase in substance abuse and mental health issues long before COVID-19 came along. With the pandemic restricting access to in-person care, substance abuse and mental health counselors are looking to telehealth to continue care management and provide direct access to care for people who want or need help but don’t know how to access it.

This particular use case is still in its infancy, as mental health providers look to strike a balance between the traditional office visit and an online platform that promotes confidentiality. The advantage of a DTC platform is that it gives consumers an opportunity to connect quickly and discreetly with a counselor, perhaps as the initial step of a process that leads to regular appointments. That initial anonymity can be important at a time when stigma often overrules other considerations.

This is where mHealth apps have been particularly helpful. Health systems, public health agencies and substance abuse groups are all pushing into the space with apps that offer access to a counselor at any time and place. That could be a godsend for someone having a panic attack, dealing with insomnia or struggling to control negative emotions.

Travel Concerns. DTC telehealth services have long been used by business travelers and vacationers to access care while in another city, state or country. Some health systems have even marketed their programs to the tourism industry, advertising in vacation hotspots and forging partnerships with resorts, hotel chains and cruise ships.

The platform is also growing popular with certain professions, like truckers, commercial fishermen, airline and cruise industry employees and oil rig workers. Often these services are offered by health plans, unions or professional organizations representing these employees.

Triage Services. This last category is fueled by the COVID-19 crisis, but can prove valuable in any emergency, from a pandemic to a natural or man-made disaster.

At a time when health systems might be stressed, overwhelmed or even knocked out of service, it’s important to have a resource for people needing medical care. With a viral outbreak, they can call in or log on to determine if they’re potentially infected; with a disaster, they can access immediate care or be directed to the nearest care facility.

For providers, a DTC telehealth platform for triage services offers the opportunity to screen people before they show up in the ER, clinic or doctor’s office, and to allocate resources to handle that surge. It can help health systems in planning where to locate emergency services and what additional staff – including specialists – to call in, as well as in redirecting resources to locations that might be overwhelmed or directing people to different sites of care.

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