How can telehealth help reduce healthcare cost?

Vector illustration of telehealth for reduced healthcare cost

Telemedicine lowers the cost of healthcare. Also called telehealth, telemedicine can be defined as the use of technology by medical professionals to deliver healthcare services (such as diagnoses, examinations, and treatments) remotely.

It involves virtual services and is one of the top current healthcare trends that have come to stay.

The idea that people can spend less to receive better healthcare at home through mobile devices sounds impractical, but, in reality, it can be a game-changer, particularly for people with chronic illnesses, people in rural areas and healthcare professionals.

The ever-increasing cost of traditional healthcare services

A lot of countries in the world today are struggling with meeting the required doctor-to-patient ratio. 

Even though the World Health Organization did not release an ideal standard doctor-to-patient ratio, many reports claim the standard is 1:600. If this is the case, countries like Nigeria would be far behind the radar as Nigeria has a doctor-to-patient ratio of 1:2,500, falling below the claimed standard.

A 2011 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 80 percent of adults discharged from the emergency room (ER) said they sought care at the ER because of an inability to access a primary healthcare provider.

While ER visits can cause as much as $1,389, virtual visits cost as little as $40, which is one of the reasons it is gaining traction among those who can access it. 

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These gaps in the healthcare systems of most countries make it hard for people to schedule appointments on the same day. The shortage of physicians causes citizens to wait for weeks to see a doctor. When delays like that happen, it can cause mild health issues to become severe, time-consuming, and expensive. 

Healthcare costs are estimated to rise more in the forthcoming years. People are paying twice as much for healthcare as they did about 20 years ago.

Governments too, are affected, as pressure is on them to allocate a larger portion of the GDP to healthcare to help build and maintain healthcare structures. Telemedicine reduces costs; it could offer a way to minimize costs while maximizing benefits. 

How telemedicine makes healthcare cheaper and more efficient

An article written by Mark Brohan, Vice President of B2B and Market Research Development at Digital Commerce 360, reported that the Michigan health system saved over $4 million using telehealth. 

According to the article, Regence, a healthcare payer used by over 2.4 million members, released a post that shows that, on average, consumers save $100 per visit when they use telehealth rather than an in-person hospital visit. This paints a perfect picture of how telemedicine reduces costs.

Brodie Dychinco, Regence's general manager of convenient care delivery, also spoke about the role technology plays in how healthcare is delivered. Technology has accelerated the adoption of telehealth as one of many convenient options people have to help contain their healthcare costs and seek care where, when, and how they want it, he said. 

In an interview with Healthcare IT News, Erica Land, a clinical operations specialist at the telehealth company, Virtualmed, shared the story of how telemedicine helped her father, who had addiction issues, by connecting him to a psychiatrist via telehealth.

The best part was that this wasn't a 'one and done' type of treatment. Telemedicine provided an opportunity for more frequent touchpoints and easier access to care than ever before, she said.

Ways telemedicine reduces costs include:

1. Improved access

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Telemedicine can help cut costs by improving healthcare access. If you live in a rural area with few doctors and inadequate healthcare facilities around, you will understand how frustrating life can be with a lack of access to healthcare.

It makes it worse if you don’t have a car and no fast means of transporting yourself to and from the hospital. So, you have to rely on your legs or order rides like Uber, which can all be time-consuming and costly.

Telehealth is making it easier for people to get medical care by connecting them to doctors through technology. This cuts down on travel time, out-of-pocket costs, stress, and missed work. All you need is a webcam with an internet connection and an online consultation with a certified healthcare professional.

By improving healthcare access, patients will receive prompt medical care, the duration and severity of illness will be minimised, and time spent in hospital waiting rooms will be reduced.

2. Partial coverage

Insurance is necessary because it enables us to prepare for the unexpected. Even though it can be annoying (especially when you are not always sick), isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?

With telemedicine, products and services remain the same as when being treated physically in the doctor’s office; the only difference is that the office is virtual with telehealth. The good news is that health insurance is gradually expanding to include telemedicine. 

As of 2019, Medicare, the largest health insurer in the U.S., was already covering the use of telemedicine in rural areas. Also, companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield have started offering telemedicine coverage options to their customers. 

3. Reduces cost

In order to figure out if telemedicine is cheaper than traditional healthcare, we need to look at how much it costs healthcare providers and employers. This adds another dimension to how telemedicine reduces costs.

Telehealth systems are readily available and easier to use for healthcare providers, thus reducing overall costs. The use of technology like 5G networks, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and machine learning has driven the advancement in telemedicine. 

When asked, 86 percent of doctors agree that wearables (small devices in the form of bracelets and watches used for remote monitoring) increase their patients' engagement with their health.

Also, healthcare analysts predicted that wearables would decrease hospital costs by 16 percent in the next five years.5

Whether you are an employee or self-employed, you can't help but love telemedicine because it allows you to stay in bed (or wherever you are), chat with your doctor, and even save some bucks on travel expenses. 

An office-based physician visit in 2016 cost about $265 on average2, according to Consuming Health Ratings, but using telehealth services like MeMD costs about $65 per visit. 

If you are an employer, when your employees are absent from work because of sickness or a visit to the hospital, it costs you and your business. In fact, according to a study, employee absence from work costs about $16.6 million annually in Canada.5

According to URAC, telehealth is a valuable healthcare tool as it delivers better outcomes and quality care at reduced costs. It saves money for both the patient and the provider.