By Beth Pinsker / Reuters
August 12, 2015
Martin Barraud—Getty Images

When the great summer cold hit my family, we hunkered down with soup, tissues and TV. But then my cough started to sound more worrisome.

Too weary to spend a chunk of my day trooping off to the nearest urgent care center or my primary care physician, I fired up my computer and saw a physician online.

Signing up with Doctor on Demand took only a few clicks. Less than half an hour later, prescriptions were waiting for me at my pharmacy.

According to a study released on Wednesday by the National Business Group on Health (NBGH), online doctor visits are going to skyrocket in the coming year. Last year, 48% of 140 large employers surveyed by NBGH made telehealth options available. In 2016, that number will jump to 74%.

It is part of a booming industry that is attracting venture capital and is expected to save U.S. companies more than $6 billion a year in healthcare costs, according to consultant Towers Watson.

You do not have to wait for your employer or insurance company to provide virtual doctor visits – major telehealth providers such as American Well, Doctor on Demand, MD Live and Teladoc offer on-demand services for about $40 to $50 for a 15-minute session.

“Telehealth can become an extension of primary care to free up physicians to focus on more complicated issues,” said Brian Marcotte, president and chief executive of NBGH, whose website describes it as a “non-profit organization devoted exclusively to representing large employers’ perspective on national health policy issues.”

Taking Hold

Companies that offer telehealth services to employees report 12% adoption rates, according to the NBGH survey. About half of companies offer services through their health plan, while 22% contract directly with a vendor.

With annual healthcare spending increases holding steady at around 6%, telehealth is one of the measures used by companies to cut costs without having to increase employee premiums or cost-sharing, Marcotte added.

Telehealth providers are reporting tremendous growth. American Well, for instance, pegs its growth at 1,100% in 2014 over 2013 and is going strong in 2015 so far, according to Chief Executive Roy Schoenberg. Patient visits at Teladoc grew to 299,000 in 2014, from 127,000 in 2013, according to company documents. The company’s current reach is 100 million people.

“This is becoming mainstream is every way,” said Schoenberg.

For consumers, the experience is akin to going to urgent care facility for minor conditions such as sinus infections and rashes.

Karen Corrigan, a consultant from Norfolk, Virginia, first used a telehealth service about a year ago, after coming home late on a Friday night from a business trip feeling as if she had bronchitis. “We had seen a commercial or something. I just went online and searched,” she said.

Since then, the 61-year-old has only used telehealth services when she already knows what she has. “Obviously, if something more serious was coming on, I’d go to urgent care, or get a new physician,” Corrigan said.

Diagnostics tools for physical exams at home are, however, limited. For my own online visit, the doctor had me say “ah” to the webcam; it was rudimentary at best. And while the online doc prescribed heavy-duty medicines, at a comparative visit to urgent care, the in-person doc told me it was just a virus and to go home and rest.

“About half of our visits will result in an RX. In an offline setting, it’s usually in the 70% range,” said Doctor on Demand Chief Executive Adam Jackson. “The doctors in the urgent care are the same ones we’re staffing.”

Advances are coming for home diagnostic tools but are not readily available yet. Some offices and retail clinics have telehealth kiosks, which have devices such as web-connected blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes, along with video screens. Doctor on Demand has a partnership with Wegman’s pharmacies, for instance.

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