GlobalData analyst also raised concerns over the lack of evidence for cost-savings and time-management benefits offered by virtual consultations with a doctor

Employer recognition of mental health importance is growing (Credit: PxHere)

Virtual consultations with a doctor through smartphones and tablets are not an adequate replacement for in-person examinations, says an analyst from GlobalData.

Responding to the growing trend of insurance companies integrating virtual health services into their policies, the analyst warned that there’s no evidence to suggest they have any benefit beyond cost savings.

Virtual care has fast become a defining trend among US health insurers in this year’s medicare open enrolment period, but one of the UK’s major players has also followed suit, with AIG announcing the service as an addition to its life insurance business in August this year.

GlobalData insurance analyst Jazmin Chong said: “There is no clear evidence that they [virtual care services] actually lead to better time management for physicians or decrease the cost of consultations, beyond cases of mental illness and repeated diagnoses.

Services that let policyholders talk to doctors over video chat are a growing trend in the industry (Credit: PxHere)

“On the contrary, the platforms are instead proving to be limited and somewhat costly.”

According to GlobalData’s 2018 UK Insurance Consumer Survey, 13.8% of respondents purchased private medical insurance because of concerns about NHS waiting times.

Advocates of the technology argue that virtual health services could be a positive asset to insurers, as they could improve customer convenience while being cost-effective.

Yet, Chong is concerned about the lack of evidence around the technology’s usefulness.

“Up to now, insurers have failed to illustrate the benefits of virtual consultations in their platforms beyond convenience, even if this could be enough of an incentive for customers,” she adds.

“This illustrates that the issues of practitioner-shortage and budgetary pressures have not been overcome by this technology, leaving insurers to face the same challenge of delivering an effective healthcare system to an ever-growing and ageing population.”


The limitations of virtual interactions with a doctor

As well as uncertainty around time-management for medical staff, Chong warned of the diagnostic limitations of virtual care that will make the need for a physical examination “inevitable”.

“In conjunction with limited physical examinations, virtual appointments create low levels of diagnostic certainty,” she said.

“Thus, it is inevitable that cases created through virtual healthcare platforms will require a face-to-face consultation.

“The outcome of this conundrum is a perceived increase in workload for practitioners and greater costs, as it is inevitable that consultations will need to be repeated in order to deliver an accurate diagnosis.”

A 2018 report from Deloitte revealed that in the US, customers using virtual care had mixed experiences with the technology, with 19% of survey respondents believing they were given the prescription they needed.

But despite this, 77% were satisfied with the care they received, and 57% of those that hadn’t had a virtual appointment said they were happy to try.