Why Telehealth Isn’t as Economical as it Seems

Telehealth services don’t necessarily lower health care expenditures—even though telehealth companies would likely prefer people believe otherwise, according to a study recently published in Health Affairs.

In fact, the availability of telehealth services often compels patients to seek treatment for minor illnesses that would not have otherwise caused them to visit a doctor, California Healthline reported. In the study, just 12% of telemedicine visits replaced an in-person doctor visit, but 88% represented new demand, the researchers found.

For the study, Lori Uscher-Pines, a policy researcher at the Rand Corp., and her colleagues analyzed 2011-2013 utilization data from 300,000 individuals enrolled in the Blue Shield of California Health Maintenance Organization plan offered by the California Public Employees Retirement System. The researchers concentrated on virtual visits for respiratory illnesses, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, sinusitis and tonsillitis.

A telehealth visit costs approximately $79 on average, while an office visit costs about $146 on average, the researchers found.

Still, telehealth visits tend to result in more medical expenses—lab tests, follow-up appointments, prescription medications—down the line.

Yearly spending for respiratory illnesses increased approximately $45 per telehealth user, compared with patients who did not use telehealth services, the researchers estimated.

“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.”

Written by Mary Kate Nelson