Why Telemedicine is the Vanilla of Digital Healthcare?

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Klara started as a telemedicine platform in the heart of Berlin, Germany in 2013. The company first launched a patient app allowing people with skin diseases to easily get a diagnosis and treatment plan from board certified dermatologists within 24 hours. After launching in 10 different countries and handling thousands of patient cases the team realized, not only B2C (patient side) distribution was not scalable but also patients were not coming back as often as expected. However, the biggest hidden learning for us was – how telemedicine is really perceived by people – both providers and patients?

“A camel is a horse designed by a committee”

This old saying goes well with Telemedicine – “A camel is a horse designed by a committee”.

As much as telemedicine can change the world by offering access to affordable world-class care, it has been about sanding down the rough edges to gain buy-in from both providers and patients. 

Why adoption of telemedicine is slow?

The adoption of telemedicine has certainly not been the way it is expected. Most of the providers adopted telemedicine as a way to treat new patient base online, but only in their free time. It became more as a way to generate additional revenue on top of their existing incomes. In my opinion, it brought a big problem into the system: telemedicine is only practiced when providers could free up some time from their already busy schedule, which is a big push back for something like telemedicine to become mainstream.

Additionally, it has been consumed more of an individual freelance project by providers. Think of this for an instance – providers login to some app, go through patient questionnaires and picture, provide diagnosis and treatment, and collect payment. Almost like Upwork.com or Freelancer.com. I am not saying this is right or wrong however it is completely opposite the way patients are treated in the real world where in their encounter with a medical practice they are well coordinated by a care team rather than just an individual.

On the flip side of it, patients don’t really want to be treated online. Who really wants it, right? If something is serious, they want full attention and in-person care. With such a notion, telemedicine is demeaned to address only non-critical or minor conditions, which I feel is completely fair. However, this makes patients a little less serious about telemedicine which results in little loyalty among patients for their telemedicine provider. Moreover, if the provider is 500 miles away, there is no way they are going to see her in-person anyway. This makes telemedicine a conundrum!

It’s your kid’s birthday party and you have to buy a flavor of ice cream. Which flavor would you buy? Vanilla…There may be only just a few people unwilling to eat Vanilla ice cream. But Vanilla is a compromise and no one craves for it. Telemedicine is like Vanilla of healthcare.

Is telemedicine really viable?

This brings back the discussion to the most fundamental question – is telemedicine really viable? Is there a better way to do telemedicine? Can telemedicine ever become mainstream?

Like all of us, I am also pondering over the answers to these questions. For now, I will leave you to these open questions. However, I will share what we did at Klara after pivoting from the traditional “treat your patients online” model in my next post.