What Is Direct-to-Consumer Health Care?

By Devin Partida, Editor-in-Chief, ReHack.com
Twitter: @rehackmagazine

The healthcare industry is transforming as direct-to-consumer services ramp up. The COVID-19 pandemic in particular paved the way for retail health care clinics and virtual medical appointments to become the norm.

The medical field continues to adopt new telemedicine practices and products. Here’s everything you should know about direct-to-consumer health care.

Defining Direct-to-Consumer Health Care

Direct-to-consumer health care — or “telemedicine” — is defined as using communication technologies and electronic information to deliver health care services to patients remotely. However, this around-the-clock type of care through a webcam comes from an organization other than the patient’s primary medical team.

There are many benefits to telemedicine — such as greater accessibility and affordability for some — despite lagging interaction between the service-issuing health care organization and the patient’s doctor. Additionally, a patient’s medical chart and medication history may get overlooked in direct-to-consumer care, creating knowledge gaps and misinformation. Of course, this doesn’t pose as much of a problem if patients keep doctors updated on their medical history.

Yet, care management is only one facet of direct-to-consumer health care, which includes over-the-counter medications, glasses, contact lenses, hearing aids, vitamins and other retail products. Some consumers buy bundles of their favorite health-related products at lower costs than individual prices — a good deal for skin care items or supplements. Diagnostic testing in the comfort of one’s home is also possible with direct-to-consumer retail, which has proven helpful for those unable to travel. As it stands, the direct-to-consumer health care industry is worth $700 billion and continues to climb.

Rising Popularity of Direct-to-Consumer Health Services

Although direct-to-consumer health care services were becoming increasingly popular before the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual care management and health-related consumer purchases rose exponentially at the onset. For example, employer-based insurance and Medicare plans were once the only policies that covered telehealth. Due to the public health crisis, many insurers expanded coverage and issued reimbursements for direct-to-consumer care, increasing to about 12,000% in fee-for-service Medicare policyholders in the first month and a half of COVID-19.

Technology advancements and artificial intelligence have also enhanced telemedicine. The digitization of health records during virtual visits has kept doctors informed about patient conditions at home, enabling them to improve interactions during appointments.

Direct-to-consumer health care also helped contain the spread of COVID-19 with at-home diagnostic and immunity testing. As a result, nations could lift stay-at-home orders and restart the economy. Although health care professionals could’ve been involved at some point — such as recommending that the patient take a COVID-19 test at home — individuals ultimately had greater control of testing and care.

Consumer Perceptions and Preferences

For the most part, consumers have shown enthusiasm for direct-to-consumer health care management and products. According to one survey, nearly half of respondents preferred telehealth appointments over in-office appointments — 41% chose telehealth for minor issues, while 46% favored it for ongoing management of chronic conditions.

Throughout the pandemic, direct-to-consumer health care reduced the chances of doctors catching the coronavirus from sick individuals and reduced burnout from office appointments. Because telemedicine doesn’t require prior approval from one’s primary care physician, it’s likely to boost patient proactivity and accountability for their health and well-being. Additionally, some direct-to-consumer health care services and products are more affordable.

Of course, subsets of consumers prefer to meet with their physicians in person, while some physicians may find it easier to treat patients in the office than over a webcam. Website and technology improvements and expanded access to educational resources are also necessary.

Direct-to-Consumer Health Care Is the Future

There are many advantages of direct-to-consumer health care and advancements will ensure optimal performance in the future. Consumers also lean toward convenience, which this new form of medical care delivers.