Is connecting to a doctor via video chat really the same as talking to a doctor in person? Perhaps not, but the two services are similar enough that UnitedHealthcare, the largest private insurer in the United States, has taken the step of covering virtual doctors visits for its policy holders.
Announced just this past week, UnitedHealthcare says it will cover consultations at the usual co-pay rate with three popular telemedicine providers: NowClinic, Doctor on Demand and American Well. These services allow you to talk to real, licensed doctors via on-demand video chat who can answer questions, diagnose and treat problems, and in some states, prescribe medications.
“There are a lot of pros to telemedicine,” explains Peter Mueller, health care industry analyst at Forrester Research. “Convenience is one. Access is another. Then there’s the immediacy of it.”
Naturally, virtual doctor visits lack all the bells and whistles of a traditional doctor’s visit. You don’t get to talk to your neighborhood doctor who remembers you from visit to visit and you can’t get a hands-on examination. It’s also no substitute for emergency care – if something is seriously wrong, you need to head to an ER, not your computer. Still, there are a number of situations where a virtual visit is perfect, like when you want qualified medical advice but don’t want to take a half-day at work to get it. Virtual visits are good for local doctors, too, by keeping minor issues out of their offices so they can focus on more important cases. Given the potential cost-saving benefits, it shouldn’t be surprising that UnitedHealthcare is adding a healthy dose of legitimacy to telemedicine by covering payments to them.
For now, UnitedHealthcare Telemedicine coverage is only available to those who are in self-funded health care plans. The feature is expected to expand to all UnitedHealthcare insured by 2016. Otherwise, WellPoint, BlueCross BlueShield and tech-minded health insurer Oscar all provide some level of telemedicine coverage to their customers.
Want to learn more about telemedicine and see if it’s right for you? Check out Christina DesMarais’s article “Can Telemedicine Save You a Trip to the Doctor?” right here on Techlicious.
[Doctor practicing telemedicine via Shutterstock]