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Telemedicine lets doctors 'monetize their time'

For years, the compelling argument for telemedicine has been that it allows patients to access doctors at any time and from any place. Now doctors are finding that they can use telemedicine platforms to improve – and in some cases expand – their practice.

Telemedicine vendors like American Well, Teladoc and Ring-A-Doc are launching or have launched business plans aimed at physicians, enabling them to create platforms to communicate with their existing patients. Company executives say the platforms can also be used by physicians to enhance their practice, either by reaching out to more patients or developing a specialty service.

“We’ve introduced a whole different model of selling our system to private practices,” says Roy Schoenberg of American Well, which launched its physician-facing services earlier this year after “playing around” with the concept for most of 2011. “This is all completely brand-new to them.”

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Schoenberg, president and CEO of the Boston-based company, says physicians are looking at online services for different reasons. Some want to launch concierge medicine services, offering more or directed services for a higher fee. Others want to expand their practice to bring in more clients or take advantage of their specialties. Still others see telemedicine as an important tool to becoming part of an accountable care organization or patient-centered medical home.

At Mountain View, Calif.-based Ring-A-Doc, which is looking to launch a physician-facing telemedicine platform this summer, the focus is on adding tools to a doctor’s existing workflow.

“Doctors are becoming more and more conscious of how valuable their time is,” says company CEO Jordan Michaels. “They were wary of telemedicine at first, but now they see it as a way to monetize their time.”

Michaels says physicians are gradually learning to accept telemedicine, but they need to be assured that it won’t disrupt their workflow or cause more headaches than it cures. Too many features, he says, and a doctor will feel overwhelmed. Too few, and he or she won’t see the need to adapt.

“We don’t want to come in and take over their whole practice,” he says. “We want to fill in the gaps, and give them the tools that they need. They need to be eased into that process.”

Dallas-based Teladoc, which bills itself as the nation’s first and largest telehealth provider, rolled out its physician-facing product at the HIMSS12 Conference and Exhibition this past February in Las Vegas. Called TeladocConnect, the service is designed to enhance the physician’s services.

“Since its inception, Teladoc has provided patients with access to U.S.-based, board-certified physicians, 24/7 via telephone or secure online video to resolve many medical conditions when the individual’s primary care physician is not available,” company CEO Jason Gorevic said in a press release. “TeladocConnect wraps around a physician’s practice, providing patients with around-the-clock care and allowing physicians to offer a higher level of personal service at a time when demand is overwhelming resources. This new offering helps to solve some of the greatest challenges healthcare faces today, including access, patient volume and reimbursement challenges.”

Gorevic, who was on hand at HIMSS12 to show off the new product, says forward-thinking physicians will see the benefits of creating a specialized platform for their practice. Aside from promoting better communication with their regular patients, the platform can be used to attract new patients who might live farther out, or allow the physician his or her services as a specialist or consultant to patients, other providers and health plans. It could even be used, says Gorevic, to enable physicians to continue their work while on vacation.

Schoenberg said telemedicine capabilities will certainly help a small physician’s office adopt an ACO model or become part of the PCMH model of care. The ability “to care for patients at any time, from any place, that you’re acquiring risk for,” he says, will compel physicians to develop their own platforms.

“A telephone call between the doctor and the patient won’t do it any more,” he says.

Not everyone is convinced that independent physicians are ready to embrace telehealth for their own practices. Jack Karabees, senior vice president for Miami-based Consult-A-Doctor (which launched its own physician-facing product last year)  says it will take another three or four years for the incentives to catch up. For now, he says, the motivated doctors will sign on to serve as on-call resources or develop their own platforms, but most of the solo doctors or those in small practices won't feel compelled to redesign their practices.

“They’re not ready to pick up the telephone at midnight,” he says. “The incentives aren’t there yet, and there’s no pain in terms of lifestyle. They’re thinking, ‘At 9 o’clock in the evening, I can do without the $40.’”