Telemedicine and the unstated reason it can save money for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and other providers

You may have read that Walgreens is is shuttering some of its in-store clinic, because the clinics are expensive to operate and, in addition, telemedicine services are taking off. Telemedicine competes with minute clinics, urgent cares, and some primary care offices; right now telemedicine is being vended through a variety of platforms, some of them independent of traditional medical providers (Teledoc is a relatively famous one), while others are affiliated with traditional providers, like FQHCs. The most interesting aspect of telemedicine services might be the one, unstated reason why they’re popular.

The official push towards telemedicine is justified by greater convenience and lower cost. So far, so good: those things are real, as is the nominal improvement in patient satisfaction, but the hidden reason is also revealing: a lot of in-person medical visits aren’t medically necessary and are generated by non-medical desires. Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler talk about this in The Elephant in the Brain: Chapter 13 describes how a lot of medicine seems to be generated by patients wanting reassurance from high-status people (doctors) and doctors wanting to enjoy the status that comes from people seeking out their expert knowledge. To be sure, “a lot of medicine” is not the same as “all medicine,” so you need not leave comments about broken bones being mended or cancers being treated.

A lot of medical office visits are costly for patient and doctor, so telemedicine can reduce the waste. In effect, telemedicine often ends up being triage: the distant provider tries to figure out whether something is genuinely wrong with the patient, and whether that thing needs to be seen in person. Almost all primary care providers have seen lots of patients who come in more for hand holding and an encounter with a sage doc than treatment of underlying condition. I haven’t seen studies describing exactly how many medical visits are really boredom, fear, craziness, improbable uncertainty, and the like, but anecdotally it seems to be high, and Hanson and Simler cite estimates in the 20 – 50% range. This is the sort of thing most of your healthcare provider friends won’t admit to strangers or acquaintances, but they may admit it to close friends or after a couple drinks. FQHC CEOs, who we work for, will sometimes admit this to us, their trusted grant writers (in our own way, we are the “trusted sages” in these conversations, reversing the roles).

So telemedicine can save money because it lets people with common colds, loneliness, and similar real or imagined ailments have a doctor, nurse practitioner, or physicians assistant tell them that they’re okay, bill them maybe less than they’d be billed for an in-person office visit, and then the provider can hang up and talk to another person who is also likely okay. Many people with chronic conditions also just need reassurance, direction to a specialist, or a prescription refilled. That can be done in a few minutes over the phone or via a videoconference. Because it’s socially undesirable and even unacceptable to admit that a lot of medicine is not what we typically think it’s about, not much can be done to substantially improve the system at current levels of technology, but offering telemedicine can be an improvement. HRSA has noticed something like this and is now pushing for FQHCs to offer telemedicine. Healthcare now consumed about 18% of GDP, in a $20 trillion economy, or about $3.7 trillion dollars. There’s enormous pressure on almost every player to try and lower costs as a consequence of these unbelievable numbers. One way or another, the average worker is paying about one in every five dollars earned into medicine—whether that dollar is paid to insurance companies, hospitals, or levels of government via taxes. Strangely, though, regulators are letting hospitals merge and form local monopolies and oligopolies, which is an important exception to the lower-cost trend. Telehealth, however, is right on trend.

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