Telehealth Startups Sharing Patient Data

An absolute firework show of a joint report between STAT and The Markup cast a spotlight on telehealth companies sharing sensitive patient information with advertisers, and it definitely wasn’t a good look for some of the biggest names in the space. 

Over the past few months, STAT and The Markup created accounts and completed onboarding forms on 50 telehealth sites (most major players, notably excluding Teladoc/BetterHelp), then tracked what data was being shared with advertisers such as Google, Facebook, and TikTok.

Of the 50 telehealth websites analyzed, advertisers received information from:

  • URLs users visited – 49 sites
  • Personal info (name, email, phone) – 35 sites
  • When user initiated checkout – 19 sites
  • User’s answers to questionnaires – 13 sites
  • When user added to cart – 11 sites
  • When user created an account – 9 sites

Yikes. One of the stats that stands out the most is the fact that 13 of the websites shared patients’ answers to medical intake questions, such as their migraine frequency or substance use history. All but one of the sites shared the URLs that users visited – gold star for Amazon Clinic – but most of the websites shared information with multiple advertisers. 

Here’s how many of the sites shared data with each advertiser:

  • Google – 47 sites
  • Facebook – 44 sites 
  • TikTok – 23 sites
  • Snapchat – 15 sites
  • LinkedIn – 9 sites
  • Twitter – 7 sites

You can find the full list of telehealth platforms and the information they shared roughly a third of the way down the report, and the authors were even kind enough to provide a cringe worthy round up of each company’s response

The Takeaway

Telehealth companies often act as middlemen between the patients and providers covered under HIPAA, rather than delivering care themselves, which results in limited protections for the sensitive information they collect.

Most patients probably assume that their health data is always protected, and many of them turn to online solutions for more privacy in the first place. The end of STAT and The Markup’s report included thousands of words from privacy experts and regulators, nearly all of them agreeing that protections like HIPAA need to be reformed for the telehealth era.

Only protecting sensitive information in certain settings is clearly starting to feel out of step with the times, especially when advertisers have the answers to your health intake forms.

Teladoc Reports Strong Q3 on BetterHelp Performance

Teladoc’s third quarter earnings report is in, and it’s looking like the company might finally be hitting its stride on its path toward profitability.

On its investor call, Teladoc told the only story that Wall Street wants to hear: cost management efforts and gross margins are both improving. The narrative helped push Teladoc’s stock up over 20% last week, although its $5B market cap still has a ways to go before getting back to its $45B peak.

Teladoc’s third quarter, by the numbers: 

  • Revenue of $611.4M, up 17% year-over-year
  • Net loss of $73.5M, earnings per share of -$0.45
  • Gross margin of 69.6%
  • Ended the quarter with 57.8M US members, up 10% year-over-year

CEO Jason Gorevic called out four main drivers behind Teladoc’s better than expected Q3 revenue, but its BetterHelp mental health business was definitely a standout.

  • BetterHelp grew over 35% compared to Q3 2021 and it’s now hitting a run rate of $1B annually. 
  • The direct-to-consumer mental health platform was specifically called out for contributing to Teladoc’s gross margin improvement, and its previously reported poor returns on advertising have begun to stabilize.
  • The efficiency gains were primarily due to higher utilization of group therapy sessions and the pivot away from a purely contractor model toward a hybrid model with more full-time employees.
  • Gorevic noted that next year’s outlook for BetterHelp depends in large part on macroeconomic conditions that could cause consumers to tighten their purse strings.

Other highlights from the quarter included 9% membership growth for Chronic Care Complete (now at 791k members), an expanded partnership with HCSC to bring Teladoc’s solution suite to employer groups, and high satisfaction among Primary360 users.

  • It was interesting that Teladoc stuck to NPS scores and some general utilization stats when discussing Primary360, and it’s probably telling that the actual membership count wasn’t deemed noteworthy.

The Takeaway

By all accounts Teladoc delivered a solid third quarter, and the margin improvement stemming from BetterHelp was music to shareholders’ ears. Despite the strong report, Teladoc lowered its full-year guidance to ~$2.4B in revenue, but even that was taken as good news by investors who viewed it as setting up an achievable growth target.

Telehealth Flexibilities Reduced Opioid Overdoses

A new study in JAMA Psychiatry attracted a lot of attention last week after finding that pandemic-era telehealth flexibilities significantly lowered the odds of medically treated opioid overdoses among Medicare patients.

Researchers from the CDC, CMS, and NIDA examined data from Medicare beneficiaries with a prior diagnosis for opioid use disorder (OUD), separating them into a pandemic cohort of 71k patients who initiated OUD care after telehealth flexibilities were expanded and 105k who sought treatment prior to the onset of the pandemic.

The differences between the two groups were stark: 

  • Roughly 1 in 8 beneficiaries in the pandemic group received OUD-related telehealth services, compared with just 1 in 800 in the prepandemic group.
  • The expanded access to treatment helped 12.6% of pandemic beneficiaries obtain medications for OUD (e.g. methadone, buprenorphine, naltrexone), compared with 10.8% of the prepandemic group. 
  • The pandemic cohort saw significantly lower odds of medically treated overdose (odds ratio: 0.67), as well as higher medication retention (OR: 1.27).
  • Pandemic beneficiaries were also far more likely to access virtual behavioral health services than the prepandemic group (41% vs. 1.9%).

The Takeaway

The study served as a boon to telehealth advocacy groups, which have been pushing to make pandemic-era telehealth flexibilities a permanent fixture. The American Telemedicine Association pretty much summed it up in their press release, touting the study as “a strong signal to policymakers that telehealth can and should be a permanent part of healthcare delivery.”

Teladoc’s Q2 Brings $3.1B Livongo Write Down

Teladoc shareholders can’t seem to catch a break, with the company’s second quarter results sending its shares plummeting 20% on the back of a heavy earnings miss and weak guidance for the second half of the year.

The telehealth services provider reported 18% revenue growth to $592.4M for the period, but the headline grabber from the announcement was a $3B impairment charge on its Livongo acquisition that drove a total loss of $3.1B.

Teladoc CEO Jason Gorevic shared some upbeat growth metrics on the conference call with investors, but also called out a number of headwinds that make it difficult to predict near-term performance.

  • Chronic care membership came in higher than expected, while member utilization improved year-over-year.
  • Teladoc’s BetterHelp virtual therapy business grew revenue by 40%, but continued to be hindered by competitors sacrificing margin to gain market share
  • Primary360 has been “a significant bright spot” for commercial momentum, but heightened economic uncertainty is delaying the decision making process in the employer market.
  • Teladoc is taking a look at its cost structure to maintain profitability, and will begin marketing bundles of services to expand its revenue sources.

The Takeaway
Although the market didn’t exactly react kindly to the Livongo news, the write down appears to be more of a symptom of wider market trends than the business itself, and Teladoc’s recently launched Chronic Care Complete solution is poised to be a core pillar of its long-term growth strategy. The near-term looks like a different story, as Teladoc now expects its full-year revenue to be at the lower end of its $2.4B to $2.5B guidance.

CVS Health Announces Virtual Primary Care

CVS Health’s push into omnichannel care delivery continued last week with its new Virtual Primary Care solution geared towards connecting the company’s clinical expertise and patient data on a single digital platform.

CVS Health Virtual Primary Care will provide eligible Aetna and CVS Caremark members with access to on-demand primary care, chronic condition management, and mental health services in either virtual or in-person settings.

  • The service’s physician-led care teams include nurse practitioners, RNs, and licensed vocational nurses. The care team will consult CVS pharmacists and help members identify appropriate in-network specialists and other services as needed.
  • An interoperable EHR will help patients transition between virtual and in-person care while allowing clinical data to be shared with other providers. A comprehensive data view will also enable providers to deliver personalized health alerts to patients.

The new program aims to enable timely access to care, and CVS cites reports that it currently takes 24 days to schedule an appointment with a primary care physician and twice that long to see a mental health professional.

  • Although the press release doesn’t go into too much detail on how CVS plans to staff the program, an active job listing for a virtual primary care provider indicates that they’re hiring two PCPs to cover the entire 17-state central US region.
  • If that ratio holds through next year’s launch it would suggest that CVS isn’t expecting significant patient volume through the platform, although it’s still early to make that call.

The Takeaway
The Virtual Primary Care launch continues CVS Health’s recent string of service enhancements designed to help it move beyond its corner drugstore image, including reimagining its stores as healthcare destinations and a strategic data partnership with Microsoft. The move also bolsters CVS Health’s overall care delivery strategy at a time when one of its most direct competitors, Walgreens, is doubling down on primary care by taking an ownership stake in VillageMD to streamline the launch of at least 700 connected clinics by 2027.

Measuring Telehealth Outcomes During the Pandemic

Since the beginning of the pandemic, few studies have investigated the association of telehealth with outcomes of care, including patterns of care use after the initial encounter. New research published in JAMA Network Open set out to do just that, using a cohort of 40.7M US adults with commercial health coverage to examine the difference in outcomes between telehealth versus in-person encounters.

The study assessed Blue Cross and Blue Shield members from July 1, 2019, to December 31, 2020. Outcomes of care were assessed 14 days after initial encounters and included follow-up encounters of any kind, ED visits, and hospitalizations.

The key finding of the study was that telehealth has the potential to result in duplicative care, depending largely on the patient’s condition type. Telehealth patients with acute conditions were more likely to have a follow-up encounter than in-person patients, while telehealth patients with chronic conditions were less likely to require follow-up. 

In the cohort with acute conditions, the odds ratios for patients with an initial telehealth encounter were 1.44 for a follow-up of any kind and 1.11 for an ED encounter.

  • Ex: Patients with an acute upper respiratory tract infection episode were 65% more likely to have a follow-up if their initial encounter was a telehealth visit, compared to in-person.

The chronic condition cohort showed contrasting results, with odds ratios of 0.94 for follow-ups of any kind if the initial encounter was via telehealth.

  • Ex: Patients with essential hypertension were 37% less likely to have a follow-up if their initial encounter was a telehealth visit, compared to in-person.

For those that like to dive into the data, this table breaks down patterns of subsequent care by the clinical condition.  

The Takeaway

The contrasting patterns of telehealth follow-up care for acute and chronic conditions are relevant to both policy makers and providers. Telehealth use for the management of chronic conditions appears comparable, or even more efficient, than in-person care, with the opposite looking true for acute conditions. This trend was strongest for acute respiratory infections, but that also feels like a pretty natural result for a study conducted during a respiratory-related pandemic.

The Telehealth Era Is Just Beginning

“The Telehealth Era Is Just Beginning” is a fitting title for the bullish stance on virtual care featured in this month’s issue of the Harvard Business Review. Although we cover plenty of articles outlining the benefits of telehealth, this piece was penned by a pair of especially qualified authors: former chief executive of the Permanente Medical Group, Robert Pearl, and Intermountain Healthcare’s executive director of telehealth services, Brian Wayling.

Pearl and Wayling shared an extensive deep dive on several key areas where telehealth can have a positive impact. It’s worth the read if you have 30 minutes and a big cup of coffee, but the key points are outlined here for those in search of the condensed takeaways.

Reducing unnecessary trips to the ER was the first focus area, due in large part to the heightened medical risks created by ER physicians frequently lacking access to patient EHR data and the low likelihood of follow-up care.

  • Kaiser Permanente addresses these issues by providing members with a telehealth center with physicians that can solve the problem and coordinate any follow-ups in 60% of cases, preventing unnecessary ER visits.

Reversing the chronic disease crisis was the second use case highlighted, with telehealth providing a better way to serve the 50% of US hypertension patients living with an elevated risk of complications due to poor management of the condition.

  • Pearl reported that KP consistently achieves a blood pressure control rate above 90% by replacing traditional office visits with EHR-connected blood pressure cuffs and virtual check-ins, enabling more frequent disease measurement and timeliness of treatment.

Other interesting examples revolved around improving access to specialty care and reducing geographical barriers to treatment, which help eliminate misdiagnosis and long wait times for patients with rare conditions.

  • Wayling laid out how Intermountain’s Neuro Fast Access Clinical Team virtual platform allows low-acuity patients to receive remote migraine treatment from an expert, which opens up clinical time for patients who require in-person care.

How to Spur Adoption

While these case studies are useful for anyone looking to replicate the success of KP and Intermountain at their own health systems, the article saves its most valuable information for last, exploring two changes required to usher in “the telehealth era.”

  • Integration – The organizations that consistently rank highest on quality are large multispecialty medical groups that leverage technology to coordinate care. As more doctors opt to work within health systems, they’ll be able to take advantage of shared EHRs, cross-specialty communication, and virtual care to help patients in ways unavailable to physicians in solo practice.
  • Value-Based Care – Doctors who are incentivized based on the quantity of services they provide will logically resist models that reduce specialty referrals and hospital admissions. It’s easier for KP and Intermountain to say this, but telehealth’s full benefits will only be realized after more organizations adopt value-based structures that promote the use of virtual care to create superior outcomes.

For best results, Pearl and Wayling suggest implementing value-based models within integrated organizations, driving the point home with a final example of how two large health systems (good luck guessing which ones) are finding success with this strategy.

Iris Raises $40M to Fight Mental Health Crisis

With much of the pandemic-driven adoption of virtual mental health services looking like it’s here to stay, Iris Telehealth recently closed $40M in Series B funding to help its telepsychiatry services keep up with a demand that’s “grown exponentially” over the past two years.

Iris’ telepsychiatry platform is designed to help US health systems and community health centers improve outcomes for patients with serious mental illness by intelligently pairing them with its staff of board-certified psychiatrists.

  • The company identifies best-fit providers for each unique organization based on practice philosophy, long term goals, and scheduling availability, then ensures a long-term commitment to addressing their partners’ needs.
  • These partnerships support healthcare organizations in creating their own sustainable telepsychiatry department by providing ongoing support, care model optimization, and triage assistance to help match patients to providers with appropriate licenses.

The latest funding will accelerate the scaling of Iris’ clinical operations team and the go-to-market strategy for expanding beyond its 200 current partner organizations.

  • Iris made it clear that developing long-term relationships will remain a priority throughout the expansion, and a core pillar of making this happen will be to extend the length of its contracts, which already average a four year duration.
  • The long term contracts are made to support what Iris reports is the number one need of its partners, which is the ability to optimize their throughput across the entire continuum between the primary care referral to discharge follow-up.

The Takeaway

Even as health tech funding cools off into the second quarter, mental health has remained the most resilient clinical area, with Rock Health reporting that the sector brought in a leading $1B during Q1 2022. The investor attention has catalyzed the creation of plenty of solutions targeting conditions such as anxiety or depression, and now Iris is looking to establish itself as the “escalation team” for when these situations require one.

Brightline Raises $105M for Adolescent Mental Health

Virtual mental health startup Brightline recently closed $105M in Series C funding to broaden its services as it tackles the nation’s “pediatric mental-health crisis.”

The two-year-old company is a poster child for the rise of behavioral health startups during the pandemic, with a valuation of $705M after a quick total raise of $209M.

Brightline offers adolescents and their families virtual services and educational content aimed at treating anxiety, ADHD, depression, and other behavioral issues.

  • The company staffs over 85 care providers (psychiatrists, speech-language pathologists, behavioral coaches) trained to support children with unique needs such as cyberbullying or wearing masks in the classroom.
  • The services are offered through employers and as in-network benefits with major health plans, including Blue Cross of California, Blue Cross Blue Shield Massachusetts, Aetna, and Primera.

The new funding will help Brightline triple the size of its care team by the end of the year while exploring additional ways to deliver specialized care through more modalities.

  • This includes upcoming services specifically for the caregivers of young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and youth who identify as LGBTQ+ and/or BIPOC.
  • Brightline expects to serve over 30k children and teenagers by the end of 2022, while doubling the number of lives covered through its health plan contracts to 48M.

The Takeaway

Psychiatrists are among the most in-demand specialists, and adolescent psychiatrists aren’t exactly easier to find. Some research suggests that upwards of 75% of US counties don’t have access to a single one. If Brightline can address this supply-demand imbalance with its virtual services it could have a big impact on families affected by behavioral health challenges, and the company’s swift funding pace suggests that investors are eager to wager that they can.

Teladoc and Amazon Partner on Echo Voice Visits

Yesterday’s competitors are today’s collaborators, with Teladoc and Amazon inking a new partnership to bring voice-activated virtual visits to Alexa-equipped Echo devices.

  • “Alexa, I want to talk to a doctor” will now connect Echo users to a Teladoc call center to verify a patient’s medical history and health plan information ($0 if covered, or $75 direct-to-consumer). Within roughly 15 minutes, the patient will then get a call back from a Teladoc physician to treat mild needs such as colds, flus, or allergies.
  • The new service will initially be available in an audio-only format for supported devices such as the Echo Dot and Echo Show, but will add video functionality “soon” to make it easier to diagnose certain conditions.
  • The partnership greatly expands Teladoc’s consumer reach as part of its ongoing strategy to meet patients where they are. Amazon reports over 40M Alexa users in the US alone, and has delivered more than 200M Alexa-equipped devices globally.
  • This is the latest in a string of health-focused improvements to Amazon’s Alexa ecosystem, which have included capabilities for elder care coordination through Alexa Together, as well as medication management through the Care Hub… and those are happening outside of even bigger moves with Amazon Care.

Industry Impact

Despite the recent launch of Amazon’s own Amazon Care telehealth service, Teladoc’s virtual physician network is significantly larger, and this scale will be absolutely essential to keep up with what could be an insanely high call volume for the new service.

The Teladoc partnership marks Amazon’s first attempt at providing truly on-demand healthcare with Alexa devices, and if well executed, could go a long way towards breaking down barriers to care for many patients. Even though Amazon and Teladoc are now competing in the same arena, the collaboration shows that coordinated efforts are still on the table when there’s a clear benefit for both patients and the companies.

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