E-scooters Are the Perfect Metaphor for Telehealth, Says Zocdoc’s CEO

Telehealth will never replace in-person care — it’s important for healthcare industry stakeholders understand that virtual care is only useful in certain contexts, according to Zocdoc Founder and CEO Oliver Kharraz.

“Some people say that virtual has already had its moment, but that’s because they were imagining that virtual was going to do to in-person care what the car did to the horse-drawn buggy. And I think that was never a realistic assumption to begin with,” he said during an interview last week at HLTH in Las Vegas.

To Kharraz, it’s helpful to think about telehealth like an e-scooter. When these vehicles started popping up in American cities, it took some getting used to. But now, many urban dwellers appreciate them and acknowledge they are useful in some circumstances.

E-scooters have by no means replaced cars, but they are certainly suitable for some short trips. For example, you wouldn’t use an e-scooter to get to the airport, but you might use it to visit a friend who lives a mile away. Similarly, you wouldn’t use telehealth to get a colonoscopy, but you might use it for a follow-up visit with your gastroenterologist.

“If you approach it with that mindset, I think telehealth is growing into what it’s meant to be pretty quickly,” Kharraz declared. “But it’s one tool in the toolbox, which has many, many tools. I think we just need to have realistically-sized expectations and we won’t be disappointed.”

This “one tool in the toolbox” mindset is something that patients are on board with, according to Zocdoc’s research. A full 77% of patients agree with the statement “I believe I will utilize a combination of telehealth and in-person care in the future,” and 83% of providers agreed that most care will include a combination of telehealth and in-person visits in the future. This data comes from a survey that was conducted in May — it gathered responses from more than 400 patients and roughly 200 providers.

And patients “seem to value the option of telehealth, even though they don’t actually end up choosing telehealth very often,” Kharraz pointed out. 

A provider who offers in-person care as well as virtual visits has a 40% higher likelihood of being chosen by a patient than a provider who only offers in-person appointments, he said. This trend remains true on the flip side — a provider who offers both options is twice as likely to be chosen by patients than a provider who only offers telehealth.

As for which type of appointments lend themselves best to virtual modalities, Kharraz thinks mental health and follow-up visits are the obvious answers.

“Usually it comes back to a mind-body thing,” he said. “If it’s talking, then it’s fine. Mental health visits are fine. And follow-up visits are fine because they’re talking, but for an initial consultation, patients realize it’s like being offered tele-pizza. There’s not really such a thing because you have to be in the same room to taste it, smell it and eat it. They think about medicine in much the same way.”

From Kharraz’s point of view, he thinks telehealth will “engulf” all mental health care “very soon,” with “a very small remnant” of visits being conducted in person.

Zocdoc’s data supports this thesis. In May 2020, 74% of mental health appointments were conducted virtually. The next May, that percentage rose to 85%, and in May 2022, it rose to 87%. 

“To be frank, I think the telehealth revolution in mental health has really improved access by a lot for the average consumer. I think that’s really an incredible blessing,” Kharraz said.

Photo: venimo, Getty Images