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Is Telehealth Cheaper Than In-Person Medical Treatment?

Telehealth services are often cheaper than in-person medical treatment. They provide an alternative to more expensive in-person physician and emergency room visits.

Telehealth uses technology and telecommunications to deliver medical care to individuals virtually. Medical professionals don’t have to be in the same room, or even location, as patients.

Overall, telehealth and telemedicine are considered to be more cost-effective than face-to-face and in-person medical care. (Learn More) Telehealth can save you time and money, both on travel and the office visit itself. Ultimately, it can be a convenient way to see a medical professional faster.

Telehealth services can provide a high level of care, and quality standards are still being met. (Learn More) You can video chat or talk in real time with a medical professional.

With telehealth, you can also have greater access to health care providers during off hours than you can with in-person services. It can provide you with more options than you have through traditional means.

Most states have parity laws that require telemedicine and telehealth to be covered comparably to in-person medical treatment. As a result, more insurance policies and companies are offering coverage for telehealth services. (Learn More)

Cost Comparisons

Telehealth can include live and real-time video chats and teleconferencing with medical professionals as well as email, text messages, and additional digital and virtual support. You can send images and upload files and information to a digital platform and receive a diagnosis, treatment plan, and connections with necessary specialists through telehealth services. Apps, wearables, and patient-monitoring devices can be used remotely with telehealth support.

Telehealth can increase your access to care and make medical appointments easier to obtain and less time consuming. Telehealth can save you time and money on travel and doctor office visits. Telehealth can also connect you more easily and rapidly with a specialist and help to bridge geographical barriers.

Below are some specific cost comparisons of telehealth versus in-person treatment.

  • A typical telehealth appointment with a primary care provider costs between $40 and $50 as opposed to a traditional in-person office visit that generally costs about $176 per visit. Insurance copays may bring this down to $15 or $20 a visit, but telehealth appointments will often not even have a copay at all.
  • A visit to the emergency room (ER) can run you between $50 and $100 in copay costs, or between $150 and upward of $3,000 if you don’t have insurance.
    Telehealth services can save you a trip to the ER by answering your questions virtually whenever they come up, even if it’s after traditional office hours. A telehealth appointment can save you a trip to urgent care or an emergency department and help you determine whether or not an in-person visit is necessary. Oftentimes, telehealth support can help you decide if you can wait until normal office hours, which can save money too.
  • Telehealth can help to monitor patients at home and reduce the number of days spent in the hospital, thus cutting costs. Using a “hospital at home” model, telehealth services can provide daily check-ins and patient monitoring to cut costs of medical treatment by nearly a third — from close to $7,500 down to just over $5,000 — for those requiring hospital-level care who are stable enough to be treated at home.
  • Individuals struggling with chronic diseases can save money using telehealth services, including at-home monitoring and virtual communications instead of costly and time-consuming in-person visits. A study on those battling COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) who used remote monitoring and telehealth services showed that they saved upward of almost $3,000 each year, for example.

While telehealth services may save you money in the short term, there are things to be aware of. Studies have found that only about 12 percent of telehealth appointments actually replaced an in-person office visit. The remaining 88 percent constituted new demand for services that may not have been used without the convenience of the digital and virtual realm. In this way, telehealth may make medical treatment more accessible and therefore actually increase health care spending.

A telehealth appointment may also lead to more follow-up appointments, a higher rate of prescriptions being dispensed, and additional lab tests — all of which can increase medical expenses. Annual spending on acute respiratory illness increased by $45 for telehealth users.

Although some of these costs related to health care spending may be going up, telehealth can still offer expanded access to care, more convenience, and improved quality of life, which can arguably make it more cost-effective in the long run.

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Quality vs. Cost

A telehealth visit can be a great tool for checking symptoms, answering questions, monitoring and managing a chronic condition, routine examinations, and follow-up care. Diagnostic tests, setting a broken bone, and lab work will still need to be done in person.

Telehealth services are often a way to optimize medical care by offering supplemental services and more support than traditional medical treatment can on its own.

Telehealth services can offer a high standard of care, as medical care and treatment are still being provided by licensed health care professionals. Often, doctors using the store-and-forward method of telemedicine can take time to look over images and files before determining a diagnosis. In this way, they are able to provide a more comprehensive answer and treatment plan for you. Just because you may be paying less for the visit does not mean you will have to sacrifice quality.

Insurance Coverage

Most states in the United States (37 and two with laws pending) have parity laws in place regarding telehealth and telemedicine. Parity means equality, and when these laws are present, it means that insurance companies are required to provide coverage for telehealth services at the same level that they provide coverage for in-person medical treatment. In this way, private insurance companies are mandated to reimburse for telehealth services the same way — and at the same amount — that they do for traditional medical expenses.

There may be stipulations and additional requirements in place, so be sure to check with your insurance company directly to find out if your policy covers telehealth and what services may be covered. Some may require that the services be in real time through video conferencing, for example, and not through store-and-forward methods. Other insurance providers and policies may provide coverage for remote patient monitoring, preventative telehealth services, and other forms of virtual and digital medical health care.

Your insurance provider can guide you through your specific coverage options.

References

Telemedicine. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Telemedicine: The Cost-Effective Future of Healthcare. (December 2016). AJMC.

Telehealth Offers Cost Savings Opportunities for Hospitals and Patients. (May 2017). URAC.

Telehealth: Helping Hospitals Deliver Cost-Effective Care. (April 2016). American Hospital Association (AHA).

Can Telemedicine Save Patient’s Lives and Money? (January 2019). Costs of Care.

Are Virtual Doctor Visits Really Cost-Effective? Not So Much, Study Says. (March 2017). Kaiser Health News (KHS).

4 Ways Telemedicine Is Changing Healthcare. (August 2018). HealthLeaders.

Private Payer Reimbursement for Telemedicine. (2019). Chiron Health.