If You Build It, They Won’t Come

Virtual healthcare visits, not surprisingly, are catching on. Or at least more and more health systems and insurance companies are starting to offer them as a service for patients and members.

I’m not sure how many people have ever conducted a telehealth visit. I haven’t, unless you include over SMS with friends. But more and more we’re seeing big news about a health system launching some form of telemedicine service, typically through a partner tech vendor. My perception is that we’re at a tipping point for these types of services.

I’m not talking about virtual ICU or telestroke services where specialty providers are made available on demand to facilities that might not have that specialty on call or available. I’m talking about consumer-to-doctor telemedicine services. It’s the simple ability of a patient to exchange information, either asynchronously or during a live exchange, with a provider. I think it’s the main use case most people think of for telemedicine.

It seems almost every week I get an email or see a story in a news reader about a health system or payer launching virtual visits. It’s great to see because I think virtual visits make sense in many healthcare scenarios and can be convenient while also saving money.

If we could get more clear guidance and consistency from state medical boards, it might speed this process along even faster. I know about the FSMB announcement at the ATA about working together on these issues, but that doesn’t seem like a solution. The big news last year at Epic’s UGM was Stanford doing video visits through Epic. There are other recent announcements about non-EHR vendors offering telemedicine services.

I wonder about the specific applications and what is required beyond the pure technology to get those services adopted. When it comes to telemedicine, the major applications are:

  • Convenience for existing patients. For patients that use a provider or a system, telemedicine is convenient. Providers and systems can promote it to existing patients, in theory making adoption is easier.
  • Follow-up for specific events. This is related to the use case above, but as a specific application. Larger systems and academic medical centers that send patients home to places that are geographically distant are doing this. It applies in certain bundled payment models as well.
  • Finding and engaging new patients. In an increasingly competitive market, healthcare enterprises need to compete for new patients. There’s been speculation about virtual services as differentiators that help systems find and recruit new patients.

For any of these scenarios, simply launching a new telemedicine service is not enough. You need to find a way to educate people about these new services. There is a subset of the population that is actively seeking and ready to use these services, but the majority of people need more hand-holding and assurance. Beyond educating existing patients and making them feel comfortable enough to use these services, the ability to help find new patients through SEO and other digital marketing channels is important.

Telemedicine is not a “build it and they will come” scenario. I think it’s a “build it, then market the heck out of it” sort of thing. Maybe not for video follow-up for specific events and in some rare cases with existing patients for ongoing care, but I think by and large marketing needs to be a key part of any telemedicine offering. The “build it and they won’t come” experience is a lesson organizations large and small learn the hard way.

Epic is not integrating video into the EHR enough to get telemedicine adopted by the masses. But it’s not just EHRs, it’s telemedicine vendors like American Well, Teladoc, and Zipnosis that are offering services for consumers through white-labeled offerings. All of these services need marketing.

I reached out to a couple of vendors to see if if it’s something they are doing. Jon Pearce, CEO of Zipnosis, wrote back,"The digital health consumer doesn’t want a widget or technology. They want an awesome healthcare experience with a trusted healthcare provider. Today, their experience, generally, starts online. So if you’re not actively promoting your service in a polished, differentiated way online and via social media you’re not going to be competitive".

If it’s not the vendors like Zipnosis, then it’s the healthcare marketing departments r marketing agencies that are solely responsible for promoting and getting consumers to come online for virtual care. In any case, the need for more than a technology to scale telemedicine is clear.


Travis Good, MD/MBA, is co-founder of Catalyze. More about me.

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