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Is competition in the Telehealth Market Expanding Access to Quality Care?

Amazon Care launched nationwide while Walmart makes plans to enter the space

THE VBP Blog

Telehealth existed before COVID-19 took the world by storm, but was drastically accelerated out of necessity caused by the pandemic. Providers were forced to find new ways to deliver safe and quality care during this time. However, out of that, came studies that show consumers prefer the convenience of telehealth. Plus, telehealth and virtual care offer numerous benefits, including increased health outcomes and consumer satisfaction

The use of telehealth to deliver quality care is expected to continue and companies are jumping on the bandwagon by making big investments and acquisitions in the telehealth space. In this blog, we look at how big retailers are getting involved in telehealth and how that competition can be good for consumers as long as the quality of care is kept at the forefront. 

Amazon Care Launched Nationwide

Amazon Care was launched in September 2019 as a pilot program that provides virtual and in-person care to employees in the Seattle headquarters. What started as a program that provided free telehealth consultation and in-home visits from a nurse for vaccinations and testing, quickly evolved into a primary care service.  

In March 2022, Amazon announced the launch of the telehealth program nationwide in partnership with Teladoc. Through this partnership, customers in the U.S. can connect with a Teladoc care provider 24/7 to receive virtual care services. What makes this unique is that consumers can use their supported Echo devices for general medical needs. With hundreds of millions of Alexa devices in use, the potential for this opportunity is endless. 

To get started, all consumers need to say ‘Alexa, I want to talk to a doctor,’ to their supported Amazon Echo device. They will then get a call back for non-emergency health needs. What makes this unique, is that services are affordable for consumers. With insurance, visits can cost as little as $0, or $75 without insurance. 

“We are providing an innovative and convenient way for users to connect with a doctor. We are meeting consumers where they are, to continue to deliver value and high-quality care to members,” said Donna Boyer, Chief Product Officer of Teladoc.

Amazon Care has landed its first employer customer, Precor. The fitness equipment manufacturer has over 800 employees and will be charged based on how many employees use the service every month. This pay-per-use model is attractive to larger employers that face the alternative of paying a high fixed cost based on the number of employees.  Since then, they have inked several more deals.

Walmart Secures Telehealth Partnership

While Amazon has a head start, Walmart is not far behind when it comes to telehealth offerings. In May 2021, the company announced plans to acquire MeMD. MeMD provides virtual care nationwide utilizing the latest technologies to deliver high-quality care 24/7. The company delivers medical and mental health services to millions nationwide.

This partnership allows Walmart to advance its goal to use technology and data-driven solutions to improve engagement, health equity, and overall health outcomes. Walmart will use the telehealth platform to offer virtual care across the country, including behavioral, urgent, and primary care as a complement to their in-person Walmart Health centers. 

“Telehealth offers a great opportunity to expand access and reach consumers where they are and complements our brick-and-mortar Walmart Health locations. Today people expect omnichannel access to care, and adding telehealth to our Walmart Health care strategies allows us to provide in-person and digital care across our multiple assets and solutions,” said Dr. Cheryl Pegus, executive vice president, Walmart Health & Wellness. “We are excited to welcome MeMD employees to the Walmart family, and we are looking forward to together, accelerating health care access across the country.”

Entering the telehealth space is a new venture for Walmart, but the company is no stranger to the healthcare arena. Walmart has over 20 health clinics across many states, including Florida, Georgia, and Arkansas, with more planned in the coming years. These clinics offer base walk-in services, behavioral health and dental services, and x-rays. Not only are these clinics convenient for consumers, which increases engagement and access to care, but the fees are also affordable. Office visits are as little as $40 with dental x-rays being just $25.

Between the acquisition of telehealth provider MeMD and the launch of in-store clinics with affordable and transparent fees, it is encouraging to see a big box store like Walmart investing in improving access to quality care.

Competition Good News for Consumers

Amazon and Walmart are not the only ones entering the space. Firms like Doctor On Demand, MDLIVE, and PlushCare have combined or been acquired as the race to gain market share increases across the country. Companies like Walgreens and CVS Health Corp. have not only expanded their physical presence with treatment centers but have also begun offering telehealth services during the pandemic. While not yet involved in telehealth, Google is involved in healthcare and has the potential to access consumers’ homes through their Google Home products.  

Insurers are also getting involved in telehealth, further crowing the market. Anthem expanded virtual primary care services to 11 states, while UnitedHealthcare, CVS Health’s Aetna division, and Cigna, recently acquired MDLive, a telehealth platform. 

As competition heats up in the telehealth space, this can be a good thing for consumers. Telehealth is a great way to expand access to care. While telehealth visits have fallen off slightly from pandemic levels, they are still significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels, and providers and health plans expect them to stay there. 

 “Two years into the pandemic, telehealth has proven to be a safe and effective way for many populations, including vulnerable communities, to access care,” said Michael Condrin, chief operating officer for ambulatory care at UC Davis Health. The provider estimates that 19% of visits will be done via telehealth this year. 

With access to convenient care being one of the biggest obstacles to healthcare, telehealth is a way to overcome that. Between geographical and transportation barriers and provider shortages, telehealth allows consumers to access convenient care 24/7 from the comfort of home. As long as safeguards and oversights are in place to ensure that quality care is delivered, the increased competition can drive prices down while expanding access to and utilization of health care services. 

Advocates Perspective

It is encouraging to see behemoth companies like Amazon and Walmart investing in the telehealth arena. However, to provide quality care to all Americans, further expansion is needed. Federal telehealth waivers aided the rapid expansion of programs during the pandemic. While the Biden Administration prevented the telehealth cliff by expanding telehealth flexibilities for 151 days after the federal public health emergency (PHE) officially ends, steps still need to be taken to ensure that services continue after that period. While big retailers like Amazon and Walmart are jumping in, other telehealth stakeholders are waiting for more permanent changes to access and reimbursement before investing big. 

Onward!

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About the Author

Fady Sahhar brings over 30 years of senior management experience working with major multinational companies including Sara Lee, Mobil Oil, Tenneco Packaging, Pactiv, Progressive Insurance, Transitions Optical, PPG Industries and Essilor (France).

His corporate responsibilities included new product development, strategic planning, marketing management, and global sales. He has developed a number of global communications networks, launched products in over 45 countries, and managed a number of branded patented products.

mandy sahhar

About the Co-Author

Mandy Sahhar provides experience in digital marketing, event management, and business development. Her background has allowed her to get in on the ground floor of marketing efforts including website design, content marketing, and trade show planning. Through her modern approach, she focuses on bringing businesses into the new digital age of marketing through unique approaches and focused content creation. With a passion for communications, she can bring a fresh perspective to an ever-changing industry. Mandy has an MBA with a marketing concentration from Canisius College.