For years, telemedicine has been viewed as a panacea for the problems of American health care. Remotely connecting doctors and patients can increase access to care and reduce costs, all while maintaining quality. Unsurprisingly, telemedicine has exploded in popularity with more than 15 million virtual visits in 2015 and a growing number each year.
Direct-to-consumer services have been at the forefront of this growth with a market expected to exceed $1 billion by 2020. Using direct-to-consumer telemedicine, patients can initiate contact with a health care provider without a referral from their primary care provider. Dozens of companies offer fast and cheap consultations via a website or mobile app, obviating the need to make appointments, take time off from work and deal with the many other inconveniences of a traditional doctor’s appointment.
Although telemedicine has been well validated for many services (e.g. minor complaints, dermatologic issues, etc.), several recent studies have raised questions regarding the quality of direct-to-consumer providers. Research published in JAMA Dermatology found that telemedicine websites missed several major diagnoses, while another study found that they recommended appropriate care in just 34-66 percent of cases. Direct-to-consumer services also score worse than physician offices on several performance measures and some are staffed by physicians not licensed to practice in the United States.