The United States is facing numerous healthcare crises.
Consumers, businesses and state governments in the country are struggling to contain the spread of COVID-19, and recommendations limiting nonessential healthcare services have convinced consumers to stay home rather than risk exposure. Record unemployment rates have also reduced income levels and limited health insurance access.
Consumer demand for remote healthcare options has surged against this backdrop, which coincides with awareness for the need to adopt digital identity systems that can secure sensitive health information online.
PYMNTS interviewed Sean Mehra, co-founder and chief strategy officer of virtual healthcare provider HealthTap, to discuss how the pandemic has impacted the demand for remote healthcare options, what this increased demand could mean for the telehealth industry going forward and the role identity verification has had in expanding such technologies’ usage thus far.
Mehra explained that remote healthcare options such as telehealth services have been around for years but that adoption rates began to soar when lockdowns were initiated in mid-March. He said he foresees these services becoming a more common and even a standard feature of the U.S. healthcare industry as more consumers experience them firsthand.
“I think the adoption of telemedicine will be analogous to the adoption of ridesharing apps because once consumers got a taste of a digitally facilitated experience that was more convenient and just more delightful overall, they weren’t going back to hailing yellow cabs in the traditional sense anytime soon,” he said.
The services’ popularity could help drive a broader demand for remote and digital identity verification services to maintain security.
Focusing On Affordability
The pandemic changed the game for telehealth services in two major ways, according to Mehra. The first pertains to the stay-at-home orders made throughout the country to minimize physical contact and slow the spread of the virus, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that consumers avoid seeking nonessential healthcare services. Consumers were thus left to seek their healthcare services online.
“So those constraints boosted telemedicine adoption significantly,” Mehra said. “... How else are you going to ask about the symptom or the health question or concern you have, whether it’s COVID-related or not?”
The second major way in which the pandemic has reshaped the telehealth market relates to U.S. consumers’ access to healthcare in general. The high unemployment rates and precipitous decreases in personal income levels caused by the pandemic have made healthcare far less affordable, restricting access to even basic health-related products and services.
HealthTap moved to address this second issue by setting its prices low and selling directly to consumers rather than relying on employers as middlemen. Users pay a monthly rate of $10 for access to as many 24/7 year-round doctors’ consultations as needed.
“So rather than making our pricing and services to HR administrators or businesses who wanted to offer this to their employees as a benefit, we took that same exact affordable pricing of $10 a month — effectively $120 a year — and made it available to individuals and families,” Mehra explained.
This flat rate helps eliminate some of the financial uncertainty consumers can face when seeking healthcare without a steady income.
Access And Anonymity
Data security is a key component to providing telehealth services, but not all consumers feel comfortable with the idea of sharing personal information with physicians online. HealthTap therefore aims to keep onboarding requirements to a minimum, allowing users to self-identify. This means they can choose — but are not required — to share their personal information prior to a consultation. The goal is to help users feel more at ease with sharing their highly personal and potentially embarrassing health information online with a relative stranger.
“Even when it comes to physicians with whom you think that there’s a confidentiality agreement kind of implicit in the conversation, people hesitate again for largely embarrassment reasons to approach physicians for issues around drug abuse, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases — you know, all sorts of stuff,” Mehra said.
Consumers who do not feel comfortable providing such information can anonymously pose health questions to HealthTap’s directory of providers, who are given no more than the information they need to help assess users’ conditions and diagnose them accordingly. This might include sharing such data as age and symptoms but not sharing exact birth dates or names.
Mehra explained that this system of optional anonymity helps ensure that physicians can extend their services to as many consumers as possible, adding that patients who ultimately need prescriptions for treatment are then incentivized to identify themselves.
“When it comes to a virtual visit, obviously it is in your benefit to reveal your identity because at the end of the day after the visit, when you need your prescription sent to the pharmacy, that pharmacy is going to look it up with your insurance card and make sure they’re giving the med to the person who the prescription is for,” he said.
The consumer-facing side of HealthTap’s identity verification process is minimal to maximize access, but Mehra also explained that HealthTap is both Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)-compliant and SOC 2 Type II-certified. This means that the firm meets all federally mandated requirements for the handling of healthcare data and must undergo regular auditing to ensure that these standards are properly enforced.
The strategy HealthTap employs — offering consumers flexible access to physicians while enforcing strict privacy standards — is just one of many ways in which technology firms can work to meet consumers’ rapidly evolving and complex healthcare needs amid the pandemic.