Consumer Shopping Trends and the Growth of Telemedicine in Vision Care

The rapidly changing landscape of both retail shopping and health care has led to shifts in how Americans access and utilize vision care and eyewear options. Online eyewear retailers have seen a distinct spike in purchasing, particularly among digital natives, while telemedicine providers in the eye care vertical have also seen an upward turn in interest in ocular telemedicine.

Consumer Spending Habits

In 2018, online sales of eyewear (including prescription contact lenses and eyeglasses) had reached $2.1 billion.1 With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the accessibility of vision care online expanded further into the medical side, with telemedicine stepping in to provide isolated consumers with the support they needed in crisis.

According to The Vision Council Covid-19 consumer market insights webinar published in March of 2020,2 two out of three consumers surveyed said they would put off in-person visits for eye care until the pandemic had passed, and those planning to make online purchases of eyewear more than doubled. More than half of eye care providers surveyed said they had implemented or were exploring options for telehealth services since the beginning of the pandemic.

Managed eye health provider Versant Health noted that the online retailer claims among Versant Health’s members increased 133% from March through December 2020. The increase was attributed to both the addition of online retailers to the Versant Health network and to shifting shopper behavior during the pandemic. Versant Health noted that 88% of consumers now prefer online shopping,3 and that the majority of online eyewear purchases in 2020 were made by Millennials (ages 24–39.)

The Importance of Vision Care

Vision care is one of the least accessible health care benefits when viewed through the lens of employee subsidized insurance. It is often presented as an ancillary service in health care plans. This means consumers are more keenly aware of the costs associated with vision care, and more likely to seek ways to mitigate those costs.

The cost of vision screening or eye wellness visits is perhaps the smallest portion of the cost associated with vision care, but lack of routine eye checks can lead to more serious vision issues. This, in turn, can lead to a risk of vision loss due to delayed treatment, and increased costs for care.

Vision, however, can be a clear indicator of overall health. Patients with diabetic retinopathy are often made aware of their diabetic condition by their eye care provider ahead of their primary care physician, due to changes in the eye from blood sugar highs over a period of time.

High blood pressure can also cause changes in the eye. Patients who receive routine eye care beyond simple lens prescription updates can enjoy better overall health and benefit from early diagnosis of these and other serious medical conditions.

The Growth of Telemedicine

Adoption of telemedicine — the ability to remotely access health care via technology — is rising at a rapid pace to meet evolving consumer needs, helping to maintain a continuum of care for patients unwilling or unable to schedule a regular in-office appointment.   

What is Telemedicine?

Telemedicine — or “telehealth” — utilizes two-way communication technology to achieve three types of care: synchronous (in real time), asynchronous (not in real time), and home monitoring (ongoing).

Synchronous care typically consists of a video call between practitioner and patient, allowing a close-to-normal style visit to discuss patient concerns and diagnose common vision issues. It can be combined with applications that allow patients to submit to remotely administered scans and imaging to help the provider better assess their condition.

Asynchronous care typically consists of transmitting information about the patient to a provider to be studied later. This allows patient records, scans and images to be relayed from generalist to specialist or walk-in eye clinic to doctor’s office for review and next steps.

Home monitoring typically consists of a combination of regularly scheduled video calls and at-home updates virtually provided by patients, providing an ongoing continued assessment of the patient’s health status.

Benefits of Telemedicine

Telemedicine provides myriad benefits for patients, vision benefits managers and health care providers, including:

  • More convenience, particularly in appointment-making4
  • Highly trackable data and shareable information
  • Reduced costs for both patients and providers5
  • More immediate and personalized care for patients
  • Continual improvement thanks to technological advances and integration

It is important to note that while telemedicine is fully capable of enhancing eye care provider-patient relationships, it cannot entirely replace in-person eye exams.6

Ocular Telemedicine’s Importance to Patients

Telemedicine is becoming more accepted and utilized in society as the benefits become increasingly clear. Telemedicine’s ability to power communication with eye doctors has become an important factor in vision insurance purchasing decisions;6 even more important to patients than saving money on future health care costs through today’s eye exams. However, the benefit of ocular telehealth in regard to overall well-being cannot be denied.

According to Versant Health’s 2020 Vision Wellness Study, 67% of respondents say having access to technology for virtual visits would make them more likely to schedule an eye doctor appointment. Health plan executives say that being able to use technology to contact eye doctors would have the highest impact on members’ receptivity to purchasing vision insurance.

Reimbursement for Ocular Telemedicine

State budget bills have expanded to include telehealth over the past few years, although access and reimbursement parameters vary widely on a state-to-state basis. The pandemic brought new urgency to the area of telehealth, spurring adoption of new measures to broaden access, and it is unlikely that the trend set in motion will reverse post-pandemic.

Versant Health strives to adhere to multiple core principles in regard to reimbursement for eye care delivered via telemedicine, with a commitment to evolve as needed over time. These principles strive to ensure that the care provided meets the patient’s needs and minimum standards, supports doctor-patient relationships, provides ample documentation, and preserves the security and privacy of health records.6 

While telemedicine for vision care is still evolving, the concept itself is here to stay, particularly in the age of the digital native, who is not only prepared for digitized, remote medical care, but expects it.

References

  1. Versant Health. (2020). Online Shopping Has Changed What Consumers Want from Their Benefits. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3pK6Gnp
  2. The Vision Council. (2020). U.S. Consumer Sentiment and Market Insights During the COVID-19 Crisis. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3iuhuEx
  3. Versant Health. (2021) Versant Health’s Online Retail Network Case Study. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3wb5Jqv
  4. Donelan, K., Barreto, E., Sossong, S., Michael, C., Estrada, J., Cohen, A., Wozniak, J., Schwamm, L. Patient and Clinician Experiences With Telehealth for Patient Follow-up Care. The American Journal of Managed Care, Volume 25, Issue 1. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3pzXVfG
  5. Versant Health. (2021). Versant Health’s Second Annual Vision Wellness Study. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3ivh7d2
  6. Versant Health. (2020). Ocular Telemedicine as an Enhancement for In-person Eye Care. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2RERCeh

© 2021 Versant Health Holdco.

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