- In the wake of last summer’s Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, direct-to-consumer telehealth played an important role in bridging the gap when normal medical services were interrupted, a new Rand Corporation study finds.
- The researchers analyzed the experience of Doctor On Demand, one of a number of telehealth providers that stepped in to fill the void. Service peaked three to six days after the hurricanes struck land.
- In the first week post-landfall, people impacted by the hurricanes used telehealth services more than other patients for chronic conditions, counseling and prescription refills, back and joint concerns, injuries and advice. The study is published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
The most common diagnoses in the first month included acute respiratory ailments and skin problems during the 30 days covered by the study — similar to national telehealth trends, RAND says.
In all, 2,057 people in the hurricanes’ path sought services from Doctor On Demand, 63% of whom were first-time users.
During the hurricanes, governors in Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina declared emergencies that eased restrictions on out-of-state providers. In the Doctor On Demand analysis, more than half the visits were handled by doctors outside the affected states.
While more hospitals and health systems are adding telehealth services to increase access and improve the patient experience, most aren't hardwired internally to provide telehealth services with their own clinicians. And this study suggests there is still an important role for consumer-facing telehealth programs in seeing nonacute cases and easing the burden on limited inpatient services dealing with more serious needs.
For example, Teladoc launched a free general medical services hotline to all storm victims, not just its members, and provided routine medical care to victims in Red Cross shelters. “We built redundancies into our operations and call centers and have the inherent ability to scale tenfold, so we were ready with call center operations that would be up and running and with more than enough physicians to handle the capacity,” Lewis Levy, chief medical officer at Teladoc, told Healthcare Dive following the storms.
Telehealth also played a role in the recent flu outbreak. Teladoc officials said the company averaged 8,000 visits during peak days in January, with one in five being flu-related.
Raising awareness is a big part of expanding telehealth use. An Avizia analysis found eight in 10 consumers were unsure about or had never heard of telehealth services.