On-Demand Telehealth Is Booming Even as a Fierce Competitor Remains: the Doctor’s Office

Americans have more ways than ever to access health care virtually, with direct-to-consumer companies popping up to treat minor issues on-demand and traditional health plans and providers offering their own telehealth services.

Yet it’s not always clear how the booming direct-to-consumer platforms stack up against the more established offerings — a missing link that means patients can be left guessing on the quality of the services for which they’re paying.

Even so, new Morning Consult polling indicates that for now, most adults who use telehealth are sticking with virtual care from their doctors over on-demand services. Nearly 3 in 4 U.S. adults who have used telehealth said they’ve accessed virtual care through their regular provider or health plan, while another 17 percent have gotten care through a direct-to-consumer, on-demand platform and 11 percent have used both services, the survey found.

“People are using their own doctors, and there aren’t these fly-by-night operations setting up to just bill Medicare for these services,” said Krista Drobac, executive director of the Alliance for Connected Care, which represents large companies and advocates for increased access to virtual care.

On-demand virtual care projected to grow rapidly

Even so, the direct-to-consumer market is growing as Americans look for more flexibility in their health care and companies realize they’re willing to pay for it, sometimes out of pocket. In 2021, on-demand telehealth companies brought in $3.4 billion in venture capital funding through the third quarter, dwarfing the $2.8 billion raised in all of 2020.

“We’ll continue to see a trend of these companies growing,” said Sari Kaganoff, general manager of consulting at Rock Health, a health tech investment group. “Hopefully over time, insurance will cover them and then it won’t really be a burden on the patient to pay for it.”

There are a couple of trends to watch, she said. First, new on-demand companies are launching to treat specific conditions that patients may have trouble finding care for, or those serving specific populations like the LGBTQ community. More mature virtual care companies, meanwhile, are expanding their offerings to push into primary care.

Another variable: Traditional health care companies are increasing their telehealth offerings. Insurers UnitedHealthcare and Cigna Corp. recently announced they will offer virtual-first health plans. Cigna acquired telemedicine provider MDLive Inc. earlier this year.

Telehealth is well-regarded, but in-person appointments still popular

User experience is key, regardless of the type of virtual care offered. Adults who have used telehealth largely cite positive experiences with it, with about 9 in 10 describing it as friendly, easy and affordable in the survey. Roughly 1 in 4 called their telehealth experiences expensive, uncomfortable or confusing.

Another challenge with direct-to-consumer telehealth is that patient data doesn’t always connect back to their electronic health record, which providers use to store clinical notes, prescriptions, test results and more.

And while just over half of adults said they’d prefer to seek in-person care over telehealth going forward, telehealth users were more divided on their future health care plans, though 84 percent said their virtual care was good or excellent compared with in-person services.


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