Videoconferencing with a GP is “not the Uberfication of healthcare that everyone thinks it is” and won't result in the total disruption of GP practices anytime soon, according to the CEO of Australia's leading dedicated online medical practice.
While online healthcare is nothing new for people living in remote locations, it's increasingly used by mobility-challenged and time-poor city folk, despite there being no Medicare rebate for online consultations.
GP2U is a telehealth platform on which anybody in the country can see a GP or specialist via video link.
However in a frank assessment of the current landscape, Sam Holt, CEO of GP2U, said in the current funding environment patient numbers simply aren't sufficient to justify focusing on scaling a standalone, online GP practice.
“We went through a period where we really tested the market. We sort of geared up marketing spend and put a few more doctors on,” said Holt, who has been at the forefront of driving telehealth services since founding Skin Patrol in 2004.
“But we came to the conclusion that at this point in time it's not a sustainable business proposition.”
That said, Holt believes it's only a matter of time before another company has a serious crack at the market.
“Someone is going to go big and drop $10 million or $15 million on advertising at some point and really build a brand. But I think those people are in for a rude shock,” said Holt.
“I doubt they'll be able to build a sustainable business model at this point in time.”
So why the reality check? Well, GP2U is just one of several telehealth-related revenue projects operated by Holt and business partner Dr James Freeman.
Holt sees the immediate future of GP telehealth being small clusters of self-sufficient GPs or healthcare providers around the country conducting some, or all, of their business online – rather than large swathes of GPs working under the umbrella of a single disruptive host such as Uber.
“We've got a couple of spin-off companies that leverage off the IT infrastructure we built so we're looking more into the productisation of services as we're a software company as well,” he explained.
There are a few reasons Holt believes GPs will be more successful in the online space than a nationwide disrupter that corners the market, the first being that doctors usually take about a 70% cut from a typical $69 consult from online providers.
In effect, that leaves telehealth businesses like GP2U with less than $21 to pay for website hosting, marketing, recruiting, staffing and other expenses.
“The margins in it for the online provider are quite small. It's a tough business,” he said.
“But if you're two doctors and you want to run a practice from your holiday houses in Mornington Peninsula and never actually see patients face-to-face, the two of you could probably do quite well.”
The other main reason is that Holt believes there isn't a large enough potential customer base willing to make the jump to a pure video consulting service at present.
“If you look at Uber and other areas where real disruption has happened, there has to be a ten times or greater improvement in the customer experience to make it happen. Simply talking to your GP from home by video is not a ten times better experience,” he said.
That said, Holt is not ruling it out down the track.
“I'm not saying general practice can't be disrupted. I think it can. But it's not going to happen just by offering people the ability to talk to a GP by video,” he said.
“We are interested in seeing telehealth more widely adopted by GP practices and are working on solutions to make that attractive to GPs and their patients.”
It's an approach accepted by the Australian Medical Association, which does not endorse dedicated online medical practices.
“We would always recommend establishing a strong relationship with a regular family doctor. That's the gold standard,” said AMA Vice President Dr Tony Bartone.
“Where your doctor is not available, obviously seeing another doctor in the clinic would be your next best option. Where that's not possible, we would have no objections to the regular treating doctor having an online consultation with a patient.”
Bartone added that the reason behind the AMA's stance is that many diagnoses are made by observing physical and emotional cues in the flesh, and by touch.
“Until we can actually develop technological modality such as touch over the net by sensors – and I'm sure that will happen one day – GP clinics are not completely extinct,” Bartone said.