Digital Health Care Flourishing Despite Legal, Logistical Hurdles

The telehealth age of medical care is gaining momentum even as online medical services strive to overcome barriers to expanded services.

What began as online pharmacies and e-commerce vendors selling health care products and medical consultations became established alternatives in the throes of the pandemic.

Dedicated health provider organizations are now making some headway in building a virtual foundation to support the needs of patients anxious for a reliable alternative to visiting on-site medical facilities for non-emergency treatment of their ills.

E-commerce brands like Hims and Roman have become staples in the online health industry. Patients applaud the quick solutions that keep them out of time-consuming and costly in-person doctor appointments and pharmacies. 

Now e-commerce brands of all varieties are following suit. The possibilities are endless, from a pillow company selling prescription sleeping medication to a shampoo brand offering hair loss drugs.

Several companies have banded together to develop an infrastructure that supports the continuing adoption of telehealth. Digital health platform Locke Bio, online health care firm Lemonaid Health, which in a 2021 acquisition merged with genetic testing company 23andme, and digital health services organization SteadyMD have partnered to present a series of webinars addressing the issues surrounding the growth of the telehealth industry.

Health Care E-Commerce Discussion

The E-Commerce Times attended the latest online health presentation on Monday. Our report combines highlights from the panel discussions and individual interviews with some of the participants.

The wide-ranging discussion focused on early efforts to make telehealth successful globally. It touched on technological advancements that are starting to power how the industry might function. Panelists also debated attitudinal, logistical, and legal barriers that are slowing the progress in creating an efficient industry accessible to all types of patients.

“Having a consistent clinical protocol among doctors for diagnosis and e-prescribing is one key obstacle that we are facing,” Cathy Tie, CEO of Locke Bio, told the E-Commerce Times.

“When it comes to data interoperability,” she continued, “having one standard EMR [electronic medical records and telemedicine software] instead of many is also a challenge. Lastly, ensuring consistent jurisdictions across all states is another roadblock that the industry is facing, as most clinicians are only licensed to practice in one or a handful of states.”

Mimicking Modern-Day Procedures

To a point, telehealth doctors operate much like standard in-office sessions with patients, labs, and pharmacies. But little else within the online medical operation follows any uniformity.

For instance, telehealth doctors can order lab tests and prescribe medications. When it comes to medication specifically, telehealth physicians can digitally send a prescription to a pre-selected pharmacy, which can then dispense and ship the drug to the patient, she explained.

“A patient can receive medication without ever leaving home for a consultation or trip to the pharmacy,” Tie offered.

Telehealth Market Outlook: Trends, Growth Projections, and Key Statistics
  • The global digital health market is expected to reach $639.4 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 21.14% from 2021 to 2026. (Source: Mordor Intelligence)
  • In 2020, the telehealth market was valued at $45.5 billion, and it is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25.2% from 2021 to 2028. (Source: Grand View Research)
  • A survey conducted by the American Medical Association in 2020 found that 75% of physicians reported using telehealth to care for patients, up from 25% in 2018. (Source: American Medical Association)
  • The number of virtual visits to health care providers in the U.S. increased by 154% in March 2020, at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Source: McKinsey & Company)
  • In 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) expanded telehealth coverage, with 85 new services added to the list of telehealth services covered by Medicare. As a result, telehealth visits in the Medicare population increased by over 11,000% between February and April 2020. (Source: Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services)

One resounding idea the panel embraced was that the online medicine industry is following a path not unlike the banking industry. The concept of conducting banking transactions anywhere but in a physical bank building was once unfounded. Nowadays, online banking and e-commerce are commonplace and expected.

“I like the banking analogy when I think about health care because banking used to be solely based on the physical banking infrastructure. It was the only way you could do anything, observed Paul Johnson, founder and CEO of Lemonaid Health.

Like medicine, as a consumer, you had to go to the physical infrastructure and do your banking there. You can now do all of that anywhere you want, he added. So, it is almost like banking has come to you.

“I believe that same thing is happening in health care, and I think it is fantastic for both clinicians and patients. You no longer have to go to the physical infrastructure to get health care anymore,” he reiterated.

Medical Help Where and When It’s Needed

When he started his online doctoring service in 2016, providing primary care completely and exclusively online was quite weird, according to Yarone Goren, co-founder and COO of SteadyMD. The world has changed a lot over the last 10 years, mostly due to Covid, he remarked, adding that Covid substantially normalized the idea of online health care.

“I think we could all probably agree that the future is online anytime with all these convenient modalities and in person when you need it. We are doing a lot of work around purely asynchronous visits in the states where that is allowed,” he said.

That concept of always available medical access from the patient’s point of view must be delivered with trust, according to Lemonaid Health’s Johnson. That is a critical element because patients are not just buying something available from 100 other places or, by default, ordering it from Amazon to arrive at their doors the next day.

Medical Trust Issues

It is critically important for clinicians and health companies to think about things differently. How do they portray the benefits so that that patient really feels trusted, he challenged? Then, how do they maintain that trust during all of the sessions?

“One of the most interesting data points very early on when we were starting Lemonaid was we had a conversion rate of 5%. We were saying, ‘Wow, that’s amazing,'” continued Johnson.

Then someone asked what about the other 95% of people not getting telehealth; he added to make his point about how online doctoring is fairing today.

“It turns out that the reason why 95% of people were not using our service was that they thought it could not be trusted. That was really insightful for us,” said Johnson.

That scenario happened seven or eight years ago. But it drove Johnson to think more about how online health services brand themselves. How do they communicate with customers in a way that accesses those fears?

Addressing the Yelp Factor

That situation makes you question why there is a whole Yelp company about restaurants, restaurant experiences, and hotel experiences. Also, consider that on Amazon, for instance, customers can leave a review for a product, suggested Locke Bio’s Tie.

In health care, that should be prioritized, also. The e-commerce-friendly health care solutions that patients now get in the comfort of their homes mirror many of the things that we have seen in the e-commerce space since the early 2000s, she offered.

“There is a pretty wide range of medications or services that brands can provide, which I think kind of mirrors the e-commerce space as well. There are different versions of a compound drug, for example, or different types of services that can provide for the same medical condition, which ultimately is beneficial for the patient,” noted Tie.

That point repeated other panelists’ views that one of the differentiating elements of telehealth versus in-person doctoring is the need to personalize the patient’s experience truly. Uniformity of corporate operations is separate from individualized medical treatment plans.

Redefining Standardized Medical Care

The panelists agreed that telehealth can impact a person’s longevity. That encompasses rethinking one-size-fits-all medications and treatment plans.

Patients want to feel like they are being treated as an individual. Telehealth can create a version of health care that is not just about telling customers when their video visit is scheduled in their time zone, Tie explained. “It is telling you about the things that you should be worried about.”

Online doctoring services have to go beyond the standards pegged to what is typical for a particular age group. The new medical prognosis needs to avoid using standards that say, at age 40, you should do this or get these lab tests. The focus should not be on what is typically “average.”

What Lies Ahead

The time is now for the medical services industry to have conversations with insurance companies and legislators on how to fund and regulate telehealth. Health care insurance does not cover all types of telehealth consultations. Existing laws, or lack of them, prevent full and easy access for all potential patients.

“To ensure more equal access to a diverse range of patients, we will need an expansion of those benefits,” she said.

Consolidating and standardizing clinician restrictions is also a pressing concern. For instance, allowing for clinician-friendly telehealth regulations will enable clinicians to reach a wider array of individuals and ultimately expand access to telehealth overall, according to Tie.

For example, a California-based doctor should be able to consult with a Florida-based patient via telehealth is another significant change that we should have on the horizon.

The expansion of online medical services will only happen with patient education. Many patients have been visiting the same doctor’s office for years and may not know that telehealth is an option for some of the health issues they want to be addressed by their health care provider.

“Educating these patients on the benefits of telehealth services will be a huge driver of increased adoption of telehealth services,” concluded Tie.

Telehealth Expanding Globally

Online patients fall into broad categories. At Locke Bio, Tie sees a wide range of types of health care services for many demographics.

“The telehealth industry started with primary care, as well as certain lifestyle conditions. However, we are now seeing a movement toward a larger range of medical conditions being treated online. This is quickly evolving and moving forward in many countries,” she said.

Telehealth continues to grow in traction among patients even after Covid. It is easy to use and has become mainstream to the point where large e-commerce and retail players have entered the space to create more services.

“There is more innovation than ever in this space,” concluded Tie.

Jack M. Germain

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

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