Claiming to be the first of its kind, a New York-based firm is selling franchises for telemedicine technology and territories to entrepreneurs and healthcare providers.

After languishing for many years as a “nice to have” but non-essential technology, telemedicine is picking up speed rapidly. Part of the reason it’s expanding is that Medicare is paying for some telehealth services, with commercial insurers slowly but surely following CMS’ lead. Another, arguably more import force supporting telemedicine’s growth is the rapidly-increasing acceptance of digital health technologies as a whole.

While most of the startups in the telemedicine arena—such DoctoronDemand, HealthTap and American Well—are selling directly to consumers, one is playing things much differently. In a unique move, New York City-based GoTelecare has developed a bundle of services and software allowing entrepreneurs to buy their own telemedicine franchises. According to business development director Wayne Hudson, GoTelecare is the only telemedicine franchise in existence at the moment.

Turnkey telemedicine

For a fee of $100,000, GoTelecare offers exclusive rights to a territory and access to its cloud-based telemedicine software, as well as medical billing services if desired. Those who might buy a license include not only individual entrepreneurs but also providers that want to put a turnkey telemedicine service in place.

If a provider signs up, but doesn’t want to go through the trouble of getting all of its physicians on board, GoTelecare gets the job done.

“We reach out to [the provider’s] networks and explain how the telemedicine service works,” Hudson said. “We have a recruiting team here as part of the ongoing service which recruits and credentials doctors.”

In some cases, entrepreneurs may want to build their own physician network, and that works as well, Hudson explains. Independent franchisees can do business anywhere, but GoTelecare expects they’ll get the most initial traction by creating telemedicine networks in rural areas which are often underserved by traditional brick-and-mortar practices.

How doctors get paid

Like its competitors, GoTelecare pays doctors a fixed fee for patient visits every time they do a tele-consult. But with 22 states requiring all insurers to pay for telemedicine services, doctors may simply be able to submit claims for such consults. Meanwhile, uninsured patients or patients whose payer doesn’t cover these services can choose to pay in cash.

Getting doctors paid for their services may actually be the easiest problem for GoTelecare to solve. The real test for a company like GoTelecare, I’d argue, is their ability to crack the hospital market with its product. After all, as things stand, few hospitals have given serious thought to the benefits of telemedicine. This could force GoTelecare to work only with rural hospitals, as these hospitals are desperate to extend their reach.

That being said, this unwillingness to invest in a comprehensive telehealth program is fading away as the technology improves. In fact, some larger players have already stepped up their telemedicine efforts. For example, consider the program in place at Carolinas HealthCare System, whose virtual visit program connects any of one million eligible patients to their primary care doctor. Patients are charging a flat fee for these visits, the data from which is entered into the patient’s EMR.

What’s more, hospitals are beginning to consider the possibility that tele-consults with patients serve their larger strategic goals. After all, hospitals are increasingly being paid for the outcomes they generate, not the volume of services provided. As risk-based payment schemes are rolled out, it might be in the hospital or health system’s interest to pay for the visit themselves, writes Skip Fleshman, a partner in investment firm Asset Management Ventures in a recent Forbes piece.

It may be years before a firm like GoTelecare becomes a serious potential partner for hospital administrators, as there are plenty of competing companies with different models out there today. In the meantime, though, the company has introduced a new business model for telehealth that’s likely to attract some interest. 

Anne Zieger is a veteran journalist who’s been covering the U.S. healthcare scene for over 25 years. She provides “News with a Twist,” combining solid reporting with expert insights and analysis. Her opinions are her own. You can follow Anne on Twitter @ziegerhealth.