Hill Ferguson thinks telemedicine can become a routine option for patients, not just an easy way to handle middle of the night ear infections.
The CEO of Doctor on Demand says primary care is a new frontier for companies like his that offer telemedicine, which involves seeing a doctor or nurse from afar, often through a secure video connection. His company is teaming with the insurer Humana to launch a new plan in Texas and Florida next month that connects some patients with employer-sponsored coverage virtually to a regular doctor licensed in their state.
Telemedicine delivered to patients has grown mostly as a way to quickly get help for fevers, rashes and other relatively minor emergencies. But patients often see different doctors each time they visit. Doctor on Demand and other telemedicine providers aim to change that and give customers a chance to develop relationships with regular doctors, even when they aren't in the same room.
Ferguson spoke recently with The Associated Press. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Why move into primary care?
A: When you look at the problems of our health care system, lack of access to primary care is among the largest. Only 50 percent of millennials have a PCP (primary care physician). That trend is only going to get worse as the physician shortage increases and more consumers become adults with no health care habits to speak of.
Q: You've said telemedicine can handle more than 90% of the cases your doctors see. Isn't it important for doctors and patients to be in the same room?
A: In certain situations, yes. In most situations, no. Our doctors are very conservative. Whenever a patient is seen by a doctor who feels like they need in-person care, we can make that referral. Part of the excitement around this new plan that we're building with Humana is that we're tapping into their network of in-office specialists and retail facilities for imaging and labs and all the other things that need to be performed in person. Our vision is to utilize the brick-and-mortar clinical complex only when necessary.
Q: Will telemedicine make care too convenient and lead to overuse?
A: You are making it easier for people to get care, but I think that's a good thing overall. You run into problems when you're ordering a lot of unnecessary tests, you're up coding a lot of things that drive unnecessary costs. That's not how we operate.
Q: Your company started about six years ago. How will telemedicine evolve over the next six years?
A: I see it being more common and us treating more complex conditions. We're already treating chronically ill patients. We are reducing cholesterol counts in patients. We're treating hypertension, we're treating things that most people don't associate with telemedicine.
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