Telemedicine Growth User Reluctance

In this Jan. 14, 2019 photo, Caitlin Powers sits in the living room of her Brooklyn apartment in New York, and has a telemedicine video conference with physician, Dr. Deborah Mulligan. Widespread smartphone use, looser regulations and employer enthusiasm are helping to expand access to telemedicine, where patients interact with doctors and nurses from afar, often through a secure video connection. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Walmart workers can now see a doctor for only $4. The catch? It has to be a virtual visit.

The retail giant recently rolled back the $40 price on telemedicine, becoming the latest big company to nudge employees toward a high-tech way to get diagnosed and treated remotely.

But patients have been slow to embrace virtual care. Eighty percent of mid-size and large U.S. companies offered telemedicine services to their workers last year, up from 18 percent in 2014, according to the consultant Mercer. Only 8 percent of eligible employees used telemedicine at least once in 2017, most recent figures show.

“There’s an awful lot of effort right now focused on educating the consumer that there’s a better way,” said Jason Gorevic, CEO of telemedicine provider Teladoc Health.

Widespread smartphone use, looser regulations and employer enthusiasm are helping to expand access to telemedicine, where patients interact with doctors and nurses from afar, often through a secure video connection. Supporters say virtual visits make it easier for patients to see a therapist or quickly find help for ailments that aren’t emergencies. But many still fall back to going to the doctor’s office when they’re sick.

Health care experts have long said that changing behavior can be hard. In telemedicine’s case, patients might learn about it from their employer and then forget about it by the time they need care a few months later. Plus emotions can complicate health care decisions, said Mercer’s Beth Umland.

Some patients, especially older ones, also just prefer an in-person visit.

“Going to the doctor’s office is a big event in their life and something they look forward to,” said Geoffrey Boyce, CEO of InSight Telepsychiatry, which provides virtual mental health services.

Tom Hill is among that crowd. The 66-year-old from Mooresville, Indiana, said he’s never used telemedicine and has no plans to.

“I believe in a handshake and looking a guy in the eye,” said Hill during a recent shopping break at a downtown Indianapolis mall. “I don’t buy anything online either.”

But the practice does gain fans once patients try it.

Julie Guerrero-Goetsch has opened her MDLive telemedicine app several times since first using it about a year ago to get help for a sinus infection.

The Fallon, Nevada, resident was skeptical, but she didn’t have time to go in person. MDLive connected her to a doctor soon after she opened the app. She said he started asking questions about symptoms “just as if I was sitting in a doctor’s office” and prescribed an antibiotic.

Caitlin Powers tried telemedicine recently after hearing about it through a friend. The Columbia University graduate student was feeling stuffed up and worried she might be coming down with the flu. She said her appointment started on time, lasted 10 minutes, and she spoke by video with a doctor in Florida while never leaving her Brooklyn apartment.

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