HealthPartners argues that the answer is yes. In a 2013 Health Affairs article, they argue the following:
HealthPartners in Minnesota launched an online clinic called virtuwell in late 2010. After more than 40,000 cases, we report an average $88 lower cost per episode compared with care received in traditional settings, strong indicators of clinical effectiveness, and a 98 percent “would recommend” rating from customers. The possibility of extrapolating such savings to larger volumes of cases is compelling.
Although I believe that there will be some savings from online health clinics, I believe that much of this perceived savings is due to patients sorting. If relatively healthier patients use the online health clinic, then it could be the case that average costs will be lower for those who use the online services simply due to patient sorting. The report does risk adjust for patient comorbidities and other factors.
Risk adjustment, however, is always imperfect. Thus, three confounding factors could bias these estimates.
- Individuals who are more educated, wealthier, more technologically savvy are more likely to use the online health clinic, but are also more likely to be relatively healthy conditional on observables.
- Individuals who use the online clinics may be more likely to seek treatment for less severe cases. If this is the case, then the treatment received during the online clinic may appear cheaper than is really the case since treating this same people in the clinic may have been cheaper than the average patient. Thus, there would still be cost savingings but the magnitude would not be as large.
- Whereas the points above mention that there could be differences in the types of patients that use the online services, within each individual preferences for online treatment may vary. The less serious an illness appears to be (i.e., the lower the likelihood urgent care is needed from the patient’s perspective) the more likely individuals will seek online care.
Two of the largest healthcare systems in the Twin Cities have announced plans to merge – and if approved it will created the second largest hospital system in Minnesota in terms of revenue (Mayo Clinic is first).
For those non-Midwesterners – the geographical environs of the Twin Cities Metro area comprise a 50 mile circumference anchored by Minneapolis to the west and St. Paul to the east. At a high level, this move essentially links West (Park Nicollet) and East (HealthPartners) and according to news releases from both organizations, the combined health system will include more than 20,000 employees and 1,500 multispecialty physicians. However, there is a more compelling angle to this story.
On the surface the motivation for this move could be primarily economic: The average operating margin for a U.S. hospital is 2.5% — tough financial sledding in a disrupted and crowded market. Overly simplified, the economics of a hospital requires keeping beds full (aka “heads in beds”) … and as hospitals today strive to better align with physicians in order to get more than their fair share of referrals, a range of new business models and ways to engage consumers are emerging in the marketplace.
While the nation has been focused on the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act, innovations in hospitals and physician practices far from Capitol Hill have been triggering an historic transformation of our health care system. Propelled by a mix of urgency and vision, innovators at hospitals, physician groups and companies are remaking American health care by demonstrating that more effective and affordable care is achievable quite apart from statutory changes in Washington.
These organizations are working to achieve the Triple Aim: improve the health of the population; enhance the patient experience of care (including quality, access, and reliability); and reduce, or at least control, the per capita cost of care. This approach, developed by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, is a sharp break with the traditional focus on single encounters with patients within the strict walls of health care delivery, typically addressing only the most immediate problems.