US telehealth providers heading for the exits

3 minute read

UnitedHealth, Walmart, Teladoc, Amwell – they’re either closing their health centres or tanking their stock prices. What does that mean for our telehealth industry?

Back in 2020, at the height of the covid pandemic in the US, pundits were convinced telehealth was the boom industry of the sector, with some saying it would account for anything from 25% to 50% of medical appointments. 

Things are different now, with some estimates saying telemedicine accounts for barely 5% of all visits, most of them in mental health. 

At the end of April, UnitedHealth Group, a multinational insurer, announced it will close down its Optum Virtual Care telehealth business in July.  

Retail and pharmacy giant Walmart announced at the end of April that it would be closing all 51 of its Walmart Health Centers – launched in 2019 – across the US, as well as Walmart Health Virtual Care. In a statement quoted by Forbes, Walmart said it had “determined there is not a sustainable business model for us to continue”.  

Teladoc Health’s share price hit a peak of US$293 late in 2020. Today they are worth US$11.48 a share. Amwell’s stock was worth US$35.54 in mid-October 2020. Today they bottomed out at US$0.43

Professor Spencer Dorn, vice chair and professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina, said in a recent LinkedIn postthat it was time to recognise telemedicine’s limitations. 

“Telemedicine does not always fit our physical bodies,” Professor Dorn wrote.  

“Although physical exams often fall by the wayside, physical presence feels more conducive to healing rituals and forming closer relationships. It’s also much easier to perform necessary tests before/during/after in-person visits. 

“Physicians generally prefer in-person care. We were trained to provide in-person care. We don’t like tech glitches. We want nurses … at our side to help.  

“We’re accustomed to seeing patients in exam rooms, procedure suites and hospital wards. I’m not arguing that this is all justified.” 

It turns out, in the US at least, patients prefer telemedicine less than originally predicted. 

“Yes, some love it. But many do not,” wrote Professor Dorn.  

“And it’s not just older adults. Three years ago, I was shocked when a 29-year-old web designer told me he’d return to see me in person rather than do a video visit follow-up.” 

Finally, he wrote, healthcare “pulls strongly towards inertia”. 

“With stay-at-home orders long expired, care has defaulted to traditional in-person settings. There is little incentive to change.” 

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