Why It Took A Pandemic To Bring Healthcare Into The Connected Economy

It took a pandemic to bring healthcare into the connected economy. Before the pandemic, the ability of a consumer to access a doctor via a connected device was minimal. In 2018, the American Hospital Association endorsed the expanded usage of telehealth and noted that the practice needed additional research before it could treat many disease states. For that year, about 25 percent of U.S. consumers had accessed healthcare and their doctors through a connected device. In 2019, doctors started to warm to the technology, with 77 percent saying they had used telehealth, but only sparingly, 1-2 times per month.


Enter a global pandemic. The U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention had reported that telehealth usage spiked 154 percent by the time the pandemic had become a serious health issue at the end of April 2020. Now 41 states are actively pursuing new regulations to keep the connected version of healthcare going after the pandemic fades. 


While the pandemic may have prompted the expanded use of telemedicine, it certainly seems like it’s here to stay. Patients have discovered the ease of a doctor’s visit from the comfort of home rather than drive to a facility, park and then wait in a room with other sick people to be seen. Beyond simple convenience, though, there are other elements of telemedicine being built out to make it a more attractive healthcare option. As Hill Ferguson, CEO at integrated virtual care provider Doctor On Demand, told Karen Webster recently, the connected healthcare economy can’t stop at telehealth as its crowning achievement. 


Founded in 2012 as a telemedicine company, Doctor On Demand is now moving to include more services. In May, it announced a merger with Grand Rounds, a platform that helps guide patients to medical care and help them navigate insurance and payment issues. The combined company can provide more than just a video-consultation platform; it can also provide patient care and wellness services.


“We have a very robust mental health practice and a very robust primary care practice,” Ferguson told Webster. “And now with our merger with Grand Rounds, we have a concierge that can get you an expert medical opinion. It can provide you with healthcare navigation across the whole spectrum of your questions around health care, whether it’s how much a patient’s deductible is to what’s the best place to get a hip surgery and how much it will cost.”


Getting Transparent


Ferguson said that beyond offering a total health experience on Doctor On Demand, other services had become part of its business model. One of the top additions has to do with payments and pricing transparency. Doctor on Demand provides its services through employers and health insurance companies and also offers them to individuals. In all instances, Ferguson said, the consumer knows what the charges will be and can pay those through a range of payment options, including Venmo and PayPal. This pricing transparency is key to maintaining customer loyalty and making the entire telehealth system more consumer friendly.


“So we’ve all been to the doctor and paid a co-pay and then gotten a bill two months later for several hundred dollars,” he said. “Healthcare shouldn’t work that way. There shouldn’t be surprise bills. I mean, if every time you shopped on Amazon, you made a payment and then you got a bill a few months later for some other amount would you continue shopping there? You wouldn’t think about it. You wouldn’t be inclined to engage in that type of activity.”


Location, Location, Location


Everyone is familiar with the frustration of having to wait days or even weeks to get an appointment to see a doctor. Furthermore, customers who live in rural areas where a trip to the doctor’s office might take hours could choose to skip care for issues they view as minor. Ferguson says his platform does away with that, offering another reason why consumers are sticking with the telehealth system. 


Furthermore, he says, in today’s mobile and work-from-home world, people are moving around the country more than ever. Before telehealth platforms, when a family relocated to another state or city, it usually meant giving up their primary care physician and finding a new one. Now, Ferguson says, patients are free to keep the doctor of their choice on the platform no matter where they live, helping them gain more consistency in their healthcare. This aspect of Doctors On Demand is a key part of how the company views itself.


“We definitely see ourselves as a national practice for primary care and behavioral health,” he told Webster. “And, you know, that’s really a new concept for most people because healthcare traditionally has been a very local thing. With us, you can keep going back to the same doctor, no matter whether you live in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New York or wherever. This national brand for primary care and behavioral health is really what we see ourselves building as something portable for a consumer.”




When asked about telemedicine moving into the preventative care arena in addition to being able to provide critical care and services to the ill, Ferguson said the change in the medical system at large is coming but will likely take time, perhaps up to five years. He says that currently, employers are driving the change because they see an annual hike in healthcare claims between 8 percent to 10 percent and that’s not letting them get enough for their healthcare spend. The result is that employers are getting on board the wellness train and demanding better solutions — something, he says, that often drives innovation and the growth of companies like Doctor On Demand. Still, a change in payments will be critical, and with Medicare being such a large part of the system, things could take time.


“The biggest opportunity for our healthcare system is to try to figure out ways to reform the payment models, such that providers are incentivized to keep patients out of the hospital, off medications and away from chronic diseases,” he concluded. “And these are the things that traditional doctors don’t get paid for, but what drives behavior is the economic incentive structure. So you do need payment reform to give providers the incentive to encourage people to live healthier lives. I think every doctor wants to do that and great doctors do it anyway. But as long as you have a system that’s encouraging activity to deliver care and prescribe medicine and do surgeries because that’s the only way you can get paid, that’s what you’re going to get.”