Amazon has opened a new health care frontier: Now Alexa can be used to transmit patient data. Using this new feature — which Amazon labeled as a “skill” — a company named Livongo will allow diabetes patients — which it calls “members” — to use the device to “query their last blood sugar reading, blood sugar measurement trends, and receive insights and Health Nudges that are personalized to them.”
Private equity and venture capital firms are in love with a legion of companies and startups touting the benefits of virtual doctors’ visits and telemedicine to revolutionize health care, investing almost $10 billion in 2018, a record for the sector. Without stepping into a gym or a clinic, a startup called Kinetxx will provide patients with virtual physical therapy, along with messaging and exercise logging. And Maven Clinic (which is not actually a physical place) offers online medical guidance and personal advice focusing on women’s health needs.
In April, at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego, Bruce Broussard, CEO of health insurer Humana, said he believes technology will help patients receive help during medical crises, citing the benefits of home monitoring and the ability of doctors’ visits to be conducted by video conference.
But when I returned from Brainstorm Health, I was confronted by an alternative reality of virtual medicine: a $235 medical bill for a telehealth visit that resulted from one of my kids calling a longtime doctor’s office. It was for a five-minute phone call answering a question about a possible infection.
Virtual communications have streamlined life and transformed many of our relationships for the better. There is little need anymore to sit across the desk from a tax accountant or travel agent or to stand in a queue for a bank teller. And there is certainly room for disruptive digital innovation in our confusing and overpriced health care system.
But it remains an open question whether virtual medicine will prove a valuable, convenient adjunct to health care. Or, instead, will it be a way for the U.S. profit-driven health care system to make big bucks by outsourcing core duties — while providing a paler version of actual medical treatment?
After all, my doctors have long answered my questions and dispensed phone and email advice for free — as part of our doctor-patient relationship — though it didn’t have a cool branding moniker like telehealth. And my obstetrician’s office offered great support and advice through two difficult pregnancies — maybe they should have been paid for that valuable service. But $235 for a phone call (which works out to over $2,000 per hour)? Not even a corporate lawyer bills that.
This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.