Third-party, direct-to-consumer virtual visits are substantially less costly to insurers than care provided in traditional settings, although the scope of care is narrower. Among beneficiaries of a large insurer, use of virtual visits was associated with lower utilization of primary care, retail clinic and urgent care, and ED visits. If causal, these findings suggest that virtual visits may substitute rather than add to in-person care in some settings. Prior to the pandemic, six states had telemedicine parity laws, which mandate that private insurers reimburse providers equally for in-person and telehealth services. This has potential implications for relative expenditures for virtual visits, at least for those offered by primary care offices rather than direct-to-consumer vendors.
Further, our findings support that DTC virtual visits offer comparable quality of care for most dimensions of antibiotic management, but support the need for diagnostic testing solutions for patients using virtual visits. This indicates greater capacity and technologies to offer convenient lab tests to patients who opt for virtual visits.
There are important limitations of our proposed analysis: While the data sets contain considerable detail, as is common with claims databases, they lack information on race/ethnicity, income and education. The analysis included a single national insurer and third-party vendor, and data from claims which may lack allergy information. Finally, results are observational and may not generalize to populations that are not privately insured.