Tim Bright’s work as a well-site geologist for Denver-based Columbine Logging Inc. takes him from his home in Las Vegas to jobs all over the Rocky Mountain region. One Saturday in early November, Bright was preparing to go to an undeveloped job site in northern Nevada, where he would spend three weeks away from civilization.
Then he realized he didn’t feel well.
“My throat was sore and my lymph nodes hurt,” he says. “As time went on, I felt worse.”
Going to his doctor would have meant not working on Monday—if he could get a Monday appointment—and when Bright isn’t working, he doesn’t get paid.
Going to the doctor from his job site wasn’t a great choice, either.
“We live and work at the well site, working for a couple of weeks at a time, then taking a week off,” Bright says. “You’d either have to go to the doctor when it’s not your 12-hour shift, or call the boss to send in someone else to come take your shift. The boss is in Denver. I’m in the wilds of Nevada. Calling to get relief for just one day would not go over too well.”
So Bright used his employer’s new telemedicine benefit.
“I had a conversation with a nurse first, then a doctor called me back and wrote me a prescription for an antibiotic,” Bright says. “At first I was a little hesitant, because you kind of feel like you want the doctor to see you. But basing a treatment on my description is pretty much what they do anyway at a doctor’s appointment. The antibiotic worked, and I think this is a neat idea and a really useful tool for people like me who work way out there.”
It’s a useful tool for Bright’s employer, too. Kurt Sonka, who is Columbine’s vice president of accounting, says that in September, the firm began paying $6 a month per employee for a telemedicine benefit from Chicago-based First Stop Health. Columbine offers the benefit in addition to a standard health package.
“A lot of our employees work remotely on oil rigs, so they might have to drive 100 miles to see a doctor,” Sonka says.
Talking to a physician by telephone lets workers get health care without leaving the job site, which would typically involve a day without pay. It also means the company doesn’t have to put a project on hold while it finds and transports a substitute worker.
It’s not a cure-all
To be sure, there’s a lot things telemedicine can’t do, from prescribing opiates to setting a broken bone or biopsying a suspicious lump. But for antibiotics, lower-strength pain medications, antihistamines, basic dermatology, forgotten medication, and questions about whether an in-person doctor’s appointment is warranted, a doctor who is available by voice, Face Time, or Skype can be just the ticket, says Deb Loughlin, a principal at Digital Benefit Advisors in Colchester, Vt.
“They can triage stuff like hernias, which can be boring or an emergency,” Loughlin says, or suggest an over-the-counter medication that would help someone who can’t easily reach a pharmacy or is traveling outside the United States, where American physicians can’t prescribe.
Some people insist on seeing their own physicians, who have their complete medical records. Many more, however, are accustomed to having their needs met immediately through remote technology, particularly when they are nowhere near their regular physicians.
“People travel a lot more than they used to, and the things they need are often urgent, but not emergencies,” Loughlin says.
Other potential telemedicine clients include anyone who’s away from home, whether traveling, working, or going to school; college-age adults who have graduated from a pediatrician’s care but don’t yet have an adult primary care doctor; people who work in the wilderness; individuals who are used to technology driving simple, immediate solutions; and anyone who can’t easily take time away from work to visit a doctor.
A lot of people share an enthusiasm for telemedicine, it seems. According to a report from the Wellesley, Mass.-based market research firm BCC Research, the telemedicine market was worth an estimated $11.6 billion in 2011, up from $9.8 billion in 2009. Over the next five years, the market’s compound annual growth will reach an estimated 18.6 percent, with the telehospital and teleclinic segments estimated to grow at 16.8 percent during that time period.
First Stop Health is riding that growth. The Chicago-based company started in 2011 and launched its product in the autumn of 2012.
“Our goal is to make the cost of health care lower, especially as the cost of health care rises and high-deductible plans proliferate,” says company cofounder and CEO Patrick Spain. “This can help bring down costs, particularly with self-insured employers. Telemedicine doesn’t cost very much, but it’s an important potential way to save. The challenge is to take something that looks minor and sell it as a potentially major way to save. We want brokers to make it part of nearly every package they pitch.”
The time is right for telemedicine, Loughlin agrees, “It’s definitely on the rise, driven primarily by economics, but also by culture. It’s more and more supported within regulation, and insurers are being told that they need to support it.”