We’ve talked quite a bit about the financial incentives for healthcare providers to embrace telemedicine. The impact to the bottom line can be substantial. But what about the financial implications for patients? Physicians at the University of Pittsburgh looked into just that and what they found was stunning.
The researchers wanted to look at the indirect costs of healthcare, including the patient opportunity costs associated with going to the doctor. They wanted to quantify this cost for adults getting care for themselves or someone else. They estimated these costs based on self-reported hourly wages. They also compared opportunity costs with direct costs (patient out-of-pocket fees and provider reimbursement.)
The first component of the opportunity cost calculation is time. Researchers found that the total mean time associated with medical visits for adults was 121 minutes. It breaks down like this:
- Travel time: 37 minutes
- Face-to-face physician time: 20 minutes
- Other clinic time: 64 minutes
Adults seeking care for children spent an additional 13 minutes, and those seeking care for another adult added 24 minutes to the mean time.
Based on self-reported wages and a formula for unemployed patients, the average opportunity cost breakdown looks like this:
- Caring for self: $39
- Caring for another adult: $46
- Caring for a child: $47
These numbers are all higher than the average patient direct cost of $32 for co-payments and other out-of- pocket charges.
The Total Impact
Each year, Americans spend about 2.4 billion hours making visits to healthcare providers. When valued at average wages, we are looking at more than $52 billion in opportunity costs. That’s equal to the total working time and income of 1.2 million adults.
In terms of what can be done to recapture some of this lost opportunity, the authors of the study conclude,
“There are several possible mechanisms to decrease patient opportunity costs. One approach is reducing inefficiencies in physician clinical settings. Although some amount of patient wait time is unavoidable in a clinic setting, prior work has demonstrated that it is possible to significantly decrease patient wait time through appropriate scheduling.
Another approach is to promote alternative means of providing care. Work-site, retail, and school-based health clinics have the potential to reduce opportunity costs associated with physician visits by reducing travel and/or wait times.
Telemedicine, including care via telephone, e-mail, Internet, and videoconference, has the potential to reduce or eliminate travel and wait times even more radically.”
We couldn’t agree more. Telemedicine can’t replace every in-office visit, but providers who offer it help their patients keep a few more of those $52 billion in their pocket.