U.S. hospitals and doctors’ offices initially shut their doors for all but the most essential medical services early in the pandemic over fears of spreading COVID-19 to staffers or patients. But now a new problem is keeping patients away — an inability to pay following pandemic-related layoffs.
Consider Texas patient Kristina Hartman, who told The New York Times that fear of the virus kept her away at first from her nephrologist (kidney specialist) and endocrinologist despite abnormal lab results that required medical attention. “It started out as a total fear of going to the doctor,” she said.
That might be where the avoidance started, but not where it ended. Hartman recently lost her job and now skips going to the doctor because her health benefits evaporated and she fears she can’t afford the bills.
Similarly, Florida oncologist Dr. Bijoy Telivala told the Times one of his patients who suffers from metastatic cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy lost his job about a month ago and will discontinue lifesaving treatments when his insurance runs out.
“We are seeing the financial pressure hit,” the doctor said. “This is a real worry.”
Nearly half of all Americans say that they or someone they live with has delayed care since the coronavirus outbreak’s onslaught, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report cited by the Times. “We know historically we have always seen large shares of people who have put off care for cost reasons,” Liz Hamel, the director of public opinion and survey research at Kaiser, told the paper.
The question now is how to attack those costs.
Telehealth has been offered as a possible cost-saving remedy for patients who avoid the doctor’s office for fear of the cost. As Conversa Health CEO Murray Brozinsky recently told PYMNTS, the possibility of digital integration holds out the hope of improving patient care even as it eliminates billions of dollars of waste each year.
For openers, Brozinsky said the average telehealth visit saves 10 percent to 20 percent of an in-office visit’s cost. But, he added, possible savings run much deeper than that. After all, leveraging digital platforms gives physicians a low-cost way to keep in contact with patients, monitoring their progress and tailoring treatment to their specific situations.
“When you start to add in virtual platforms like ours, the big financial impact is [that] now you can have a platform with close to zero marginal cost, reaching out to all of your patients all the time on various schedules, depending on their situation,” the CEO said. “When you look at the billions worth of waste in the healthcare system, a big chunk of that could be obviated by having these digital connections in place, ready early on to intervene. That prevents things from getting more medically complicated and costly. And it takes away all those unnecessary, very high-cost outreaches.”
Telehealth providers aren’t the only ones attempting to lower U.S. healthcare costs. For instance, Walmart is continuing its efforts in moving into the system with the continued construction of Walmart Health Centers.
In the company’s latest move, it this week opened such a center in Loganville, Ga. The new facility will offer primary and urgent care, labs, X-rays and diagnostics and dental, optical and hearing services at affordable prices unrelated to patients’ insurance status.
“The Georgia community has embraced our first two Walmart Health locations, and we are thrilled to bring low, transparent pricing to Loganville,” said Sean Slovenski, president of Walmart U.S. Health and Wellness. “The price and availability of quality health care is one of the biggest concerns of Americans, and Walmart Health continues our history of launching innovative products and programs that have transformed the industry and created significant healthcare savings.”
Will telemedicine or Walmart succeed in bringing down U.S. healthcare costs? Probably not in the short term, since any one move won’t untangle the problems that make up the Gordian knot of issues surrounding healthcare.
But solutions like lower-cost care centers or telehealth can streamline the way patients get care. That might just make a big difference over time — although for patients hit hard by the pandemic’s economic impacts and denying themselves care, time is something they might not have.