Why Are Telemedicine Systems So Expensive?

This post was originally featured on EMRandHIPAA.

Like many other enabling-technologies in healthcare, telemedicine has vast unrealized potential.

If we make location completely irrelevant and can deliver care virtually, we can address the supply and demand imbalance plaguing healthcare. The benefits to patients would be enormous: lower costs and improved access in ways that are unimaginable in the analog era.

However, one of the many roadblocks to adoption is the cost of the legacy technology powering clinical telemedicine use. In this post, I’ll outline why the telemedicine systems are so expensive, even in the era of Skype and other free video-conferencing systems.

The Telemedicine Industry Is Old…School

Telemedicine as an industry has existed for about 15 years, although uses of telemedicine certainly predate that by another 10-20 years. A decade and a half ago, the foundational technologies that enable video-conferencing simply weren’t broadly available. Specifically, early telemedicine companies had to:

1) Develop and maintain proprietary codecs
2) Design and assemble hardware (e.g. proprietary cameras) and device drivers
3) Deploy hardware at each client site and train end users on its management
4) Build an expensive outside sales force to carry these systems door-to-door to sell them
5) Endure long, grant funding-driven sales cycles

Though some of these challenges have been commoditized over the years, many of the legacy players still manage and maintain the above functions in-house. This drives up costs, which in turn must be passed onto customers. Since many customers initially paid for telemedicine systems with grant money (that telemedicine technology companies helped them write and receive), the market has historically lacked forces to drive down prices. Funny how that seems to be a recurring theme in healthcare!

But, there’s a better way

Today, many startups are building robust telemedicine platforms with dramatically lower cost overhead by taking advantage of a number of technologies and trends:

1) Technologies such as WebRTC commoditize the codec layer
2) The smartphones, tablets, and laptops already owned by hospitals (and individual providers) have high quality cameras built into them
3) Cloud providers like Amazon Web Services make it incredibly easy for young companies to build cloud-based technologies
4) Digital and inbound marketing enable smaller (and inside) sales forces to succeed at scale.
5) To reduce the cost of care, providers are increasingly seeking telemedicine systems now, without wading (and waiting) through the grant process of yesteryear.

In short, telemedicine companies today can build dramatically more cost-effective solutions because they don’t have to incur the costs that the legacy players do.

Why don’t the old players adapt?

The simple answer: switching business models is exceedingly difficult. Consider the following:

1) Laying off hardware and codec development teams is not easy, especially given how tightly integrated they are to the rest of the technology stack that has evolved over the past decade

2) Letting go of an outsides sales force to drive crafty, cost-effective inside sales is an enormous operational risk

3) Lobbying the government to provide telemedicine grants provides an effectively unlimited well to drink from

Changing business models is exceedingly difficult. Few companies can do it successfully. But telemedicine is no different than all other businesses that thought they were un-disruptable. Like all other technologies, telemedicine must adapt from legacy, desktop-centric, on-premise solutions to modern, cloud based, mobile and wearable-first solutions.