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Cost Comparison Between In-Office and Virtual Visits

Daniel Hagon

December 10, 2020

Virtual visits have been on the rise ever since the coronavirus first hit American shores — in May alone a survey found that 42% of surveyed Americans had used the service — but is it really more cost-effective to talk to an online doctor instead of seeing one in a clinic?

The short answer is yes, it really is, for the few reasons outlined below.

The Cost of Individual Visits

At present, the cost of a virtual visit is anywhere between $40 to $50. A physical visit is roughly double that, while a visit to your local Emergency Department will set you back around $2,000.

There are clear advantages to booking a virtual visit then, particularly if you aren’t yet sure whether your symptoms warrant the physical attention of a doctor.

Although telehealth has been around for a while, most doctors didn’t see the need to develop it as they had a steady influx of in-person patients. As a result, virtual care was largely under-developed. Back in 2009, when the H1N1 influenza virus was causing concern among patients, telehealth wasn’t a viable option, and so anybody presenting with symptoms had to go to the Emergency Department to be tested or to obtain treatment. Such costs during such an outbreak would not have been easy to stomach.

By contrast, any patients currently presenting with symptoms that don’t warrant a physical visit are being told to stay at home and contact their personal doctor to arrange a virtual visit. Given its cost of around $50, a virtual visit today is approximately 2.5% of the cost for patients making an unnecessary Emergency Department visit in 2009 due to fears around a similar type of disease. This ability to affordably check symptoms is a vast improvement from the situation just over ten years ago.

The Cost for Rural Patients

There are many benefits to telehealth for patients living in rural areas, as outlined here (insert link to Virtual Care: Expanding Patient Reach). One case study of Baystate Health, taken by American Telemedicine Association, found that telemedicine had reduced costs as well as enabled better time management for both providers and patients. Furthermore, 100% of the patients polled said they had been either satisfied or very satisfied with the service.

Time is a huge cost for rural patients and so the advent of telemedicine is a huge boon for a part of the country starved of accessible healthcare options.

The Cost of Delayed Diagnosis

A study of just under 1,000 Americans done by the RAND Corporation in 2012-2013 revealed that 88% of the telehealth visits done during the study represented patients who would not have gone to a doctor without the ability to access a virtual visit.

Whilst this initially appears to be negative — a waste of patients’ and practitioners’ time and money — this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Because of the cheaper costs and convenience, telehealth feels incredibly accessible. As Lori Uscher-Pines, RAND Senior Policy Researcher and one of the authors of the study, put it: “When you make services that are convenient, it’s an ‘if you build it, they will come’ kind of thing.”

Rather than sucking it up and downing a fistful of Tylenol throughout the day, which can lead to significant health conditions going undetected, patients feel more inclined to check in with their personal doctor due to the cost savings. There are significant advantages to this, particularly with regard to earlier detection, diagnosis and subsequently cheaper, simpler treatment.

This therefore reduces overall long-term costs, even though it’s slightly more expensive in the short term. Being able to diagnose earlier and take preventative measures at an early stage, even if the symptoms only feel mild or minor to the patient at that time, has significant benefits for patients’ long-term physical and mental health.

With regard to physicians, a short virtual visit is easier to accommodate than a greater number of physical visits as they don’t have to employ more staff and don’t need to increase office space. Access to telehealth thus helps reduce costs for patient and provider alike.

Although it felt initially like the statistic regarding unnecessary appointments was worrying, the fact is that, for the sake of patients’ long-term health, convenient and cheap access to a doctor is essential, and telehealth has opened the door to a more affordable, accessible healthcare system.

Physical visits will never go away, nor can a doctor properly diagnose every condition from behind a computer screen, but for those initial checks, for those subtle signs and symptoms that can be easily missed by a patient concerned with costs, virtual visits are a perfect solution.