by Tom Liu
I recently called my primary care physician (PCP) for the first time in years to get my immunization records, and encountered a strange message saying he was not currently seeing patients. My mom had apparently encountered the same message weeks ago. “Maybe he retired,” she suggested.
I did a quick google search of my PCP’s name to find an alternate contact number, and instead found a shocking article from the local newspaper. Apparently my PCP has been indicted for falsifying tax returns and participating in an online pharmacy organization that provided prescription drugs without an in-person physician examination.
Remote Prescribing: Lucrative, Pervasive, and Very Illegal
I did a quick search online and confirmed that the practice of offering prescription drugs through a “cyber doctor” prescription, relying only on a questionnaire is indeed very illegal.
It is also very pervasive. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) reviewed 10,700 websites selling prescription drugs and found that 97% of them were “Not Recommended”. Of these, 88% do not require a valid prescription and 60% issue prescriptions per online consultation or questionnaire only.
What struck me was how this appeared to be a case where the market came together to produce a “triple win” for profit-seeking internet pharmacies, shady physicians (such as my own), and a subset of patients willing to pay a premium to access drugs (most commonly weight loss drugs, erectile dysfunction drugs, and commonly-abused antidepressants and painkillers).
According to one analysis, one such website offering prescriptions from its own doctors listed prices for fluoxetine (brand name Prozac) and alprazolam (brand name Xanax) that were roughly 400% to 1800% higher than prices from a more traditional Internet pharmacy not offering prescriptions. The fact that such “remote prescription” websites remain in business despite the huge price differential suggests that they are attracting patients willing to pay that premium to avoid seeing their regular doctor. And as for where that money is going—well, my doctor was alleged to have received roughly $2.5 million over six years.
Similar Incentives Could Exist for Telehealth Writ Large
Given the clear business case driving abuse in this model of “remote prescribing”, I wondered about the risks of overuse and abuse in the rapidly burgeoning field of telehealth more broadly. After all, one of the promises of telehealth is its ability to make the delivery of services more convenient for both patients and providers. A physician could vastly expand the number of patients he/she sees without leaving the office—which has been identified as a potent way to alleviate the physician shortage problem.
But that would only hold true if the proliferation of telehealth does not generate additional, potentially unnecessary demand. And substantial evidence points to the presence of physician-induced demand under a fee-for-service system. Currently, Medicare pays for a limited set of telehealth services under the same fee-for-service payment model used for in-person visits. Within Medicaid, while select states are experimenting with bundled or capitated payments that include telehealth, others are retaining their fee-for-service model.
In a testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month, Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, an expert on telehealth, noted, “To reduce health care costs, telehealth options must replace in-person visits.” I’m not convinced this is the case—especially when there is a clear financial incentive to provide more care.
“The very advantage of telehealth, its ability to make care convenient, is also potentially its Achilles’ heel. Telehealth may be ‘too convenient.’” — Ateev Mehrotra
In some cases, fee-for-service payments for telehealth may result in outright fraud, as my physician may have done. In others, it may simply encourage providers to err on the side of providing more care given uncertainties in a practice environment. In fact, a study led by Dr. Mehrotra found that PCPs were more likely to prescribe antibiotics during e-visits than in-person visits.
As various constituencies continue to debate the best approach for paying for telehealth, it is imperative for us to better understand how the incentives and convenience of telehealth interact to affect overall utilization. Blindly carrying our existing fee-for-service system into the new world of telehealth options may produce some unintended consequences.
Tom is a healthcare researcher with experience in public health and blindness prevention. Follow him on Twitter at @tliu14 or check out his blog.