Highmark: Insurers should embrace telemedicine

Senior Vice President Donald R. Fischer, M.D., says telemedicine can improve both access to care and the patient experience

Pittsburgh-based Highmark recognizes the importance of technology. That's why the insurer decided to cover online visits via Iagnosis, a tele-dermatology solution, for 5.2 million of its members

While insurers are slowly incorporating telemedicine into their health plan offerings, many doctors worry the increased use of online visits with patients could lead to wrong diagnoses

FierceHealthPayer spoke with Donald R. Fischer, M.D., (pictured right), Highmark senior vice president and chief medical officer, about the insurer's decision to cover this service, as well as some of the obstacles that may plague insurers who want to follow in Highmark's footsteps. 

FierceHealthPayer: Why did Highmark decide to include telemedicine in its health plans?

Donald Fishcher: We wanted to improve both access to care and the patient experience. Technology allows better access if we capitalize on it. If the health plan isn't going to pay for it, providers won't adopt technology. The first forray we made was provider-to-provider consultation, using telemedicine to evaluate stroke patients in hospitals.

First and foremost, doctors must determine if it's a stroke due to bleeding or if it is caused by a clot. If it's a clot, you can rapidly improve the condition by giving a drug to make the clot dissolve. But to take action quickly, you need communication with the doctor. We wanted to include telemedicine so it's convenient for everyone and so the patient receives care in a timely manner.

We wanted patients to be evaluated in real time.  

So, since our telemedicine work started out with stroke patients, we then moved on to wanting the average person to be in communication with their doctor. Through our plans, members can get consultations in a timely manner.

FHP: Why have insurers been slow to adopt telemedicine in their plans?

Fischer: Some insurers are ready to adopt telemedicine and some aren't. Some are thrilled that this is another service their dependents can access. In the best of both worlds, it would be tied to all practices and not just what's tied to your service plan. There needs to be more technology to link everyone together.

I also think that with the rise of telemedicine, insurers worry their members will want to see their doctors all the time because of the easy accessibility. But it's important to get rid of this barrier and embrace the technology so plans can give their members more benefits.

FHP: How else can telemedicine benefit patients?

Fischer: We recognized that dermatologists are in short supply and included that service in our plans. Because they know their field and they can recognize a skin lesion pretty quickly, they know what they're looking at and what the patient will need. We figured they could do all this via telemedicine and short-circuit the whole process by having the patient upload a photo of their lesion. The dermatologist can then take a quick look, identify the issue and solve it. Just like that.

We felt strongly about this field in particular. So many people delay getting care, and this is a quick and easy way to do it. We're a very mobile society now--people travel constantly. Just because we're always on the go doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to access the same quality of care.