How to get better value from telehealth

Direct-to-consumer telehealth is growing rapidly, giving patients with minor illnesses 24/7 access to medical care at less than the cost of an in-office visit. But one of telehealth’s purported benefits — reducing overall healthcare spending — could be undermined because most of those visits represent new utilization, according to a recent RAND Corporation study.

The study, published in Health Affairs, looked at three years of claims data and found that only 12% of telehealth visits for acute respiratory illness replaced visits to other providers. The majority — 88% — represented unmet demand. And while virtual visits were typically less expensive than an emergency room or office visit, new utilization caused average annual spending on acute respiratory illness to rise by $45 per telehealth user.