Subscription-based healthcare can deliver medicine to your door – but its rise worries some experts

Do you need help losing weight or treating depression? How about a pill that lowers cholesterol and treats erectile dysfunction?

Online subscription services for treatment have grown far beyond their roots, mainly dealing with hair loss, acne or contraception. Companies such as Hims & Hers, Ro and Lemonaid Health now offer quick access to specialists and regular prescription deliveries for a growing number of health concerns.

He recently launched a weight loss program that costs $79 a month without insurance. Lemonaid started treating seasonal affective disorder last winter for $95 a month. Ro still offers birth control, but it also connects patients trying to have children with regular deliveries of ovulation tests or prenatal vitamins.

This Netflix-like approach promises help with two common problems in the US: access to healthcare and prescription refills. But it also raises concerns about the quality of care.

“This is not medicine. This is selling medicine to consumers,” said Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, who studies pharmaceutical marketing at Georgetown.

Online providers say they screen their patients carefully and refer clients elsewhere if they can’t help them. They also think they have used the treatment that patients need.

“The growth we’ve seen on our platform is a testament to how people want to get the care they need,” Hims spokesperson Khobi Brooklyn said.

Publicly listed Hims has exceeded 1.4 million subscribers this year. It expects to generate at least $1.2 billion in annual revenue by 2025.

That pales in comparison to the annual revenues of healthcare giants like CVS Health, which exceed $300 billion. But Hims’ forecast for 2025 is more than eight times what the company brought in at the beginning of the decade.

Subscription-based healthcare has been around for years, especially in primary health care, where patients can pay monthly fees to better access doctors. E-commerce giant Amazon recently stepped into this niche with a subscription plan that gives some customers the option of virtual and in-person treatment.

Online versions of subscription-based care started to grow after a year The Covid-19 pandemic made Americans more comfortable with telemedicine. That has led to investor money pouring into companies that offer this treatment, said Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, a Harvard researcher who studies consumer health care.

Many disease-specific plans offer patients regular visits to a health care provider and then repeat prescriptions for a monthly fee.

That simplicity can be attractive, Mehrotra noted.

“You can just get the care you need and go on with your life the same way you pay for Netflix or whatever,” he said.

She debuted her weight loss earlier this month after starting a heart health program last summer, which includes combined pill treatments.

Its competitor Ro added weight loss to the range last year, which also includes treatment plans for eczema, excessive sweating and short eyelashes, among other things.

Lemonaid offers treatment plans for insomnia and high blood pressure. It also advertises cholesterol control for $223 a year without insurance. This includes provider visits, lab work, and prescriptions for generic drugs.

These companies are still pushing sexual health care, especially on social media. However, broader growth remains a priority.

Hims says in its official announcement that it sees significant future opportunities in menopause, post-traumatic stress disorder and diabetes.

Ro CEO Zach Reitano stated in an interview earlier this year that his company’s obesity treatments are “upstream” compared to other chronic diseases. He said patients who want help with weight loss also care about improving their overall health.

Reitano told The Associated Press that he thought one of the biggest problems with the health care system was that “it’s not built around what the patients want.”

Subscriptions, whether for medicine or prepackaged meals, offer predictable costs and may seem like good deals at first. But customer enthusiasm may wane and companies may feel pressure to find new business, said Jason Goldberg, director of retail strategy at Publicis Groupe.

The approach also comes with reputational baggage.

RobRoy Chalmers turned to him for help with erectile dysfunction. But the Seattle artist decided to cancel his order and cut costs after a few months.

He kept getting bills when he thought he was going to stop ordering. He said he emailed and called customer service. She didn’t get an answer until she criticized Him on social media.

“The amount of effort I had to go through for them to succeed was too much,” he said. “In my mind, this is every subscription-based business.”

Fugh-Berman is mainly concerned about the quality of care. He noted that talk therapy can be as effective as prescriptions for some ailments.

“Mental health care should never be all about drugs,” he said.

He also noted that the diagnosis can change over time. Patients who take the medication regularly should be monitored in case the medication causes problems such as high blood pressure.

Lemonaid Health does just that, according to Dr. Matthew Walvick, the company’s chief medical officer. He said Lemonaid routinely follows up with patients to monitor side effects and update their medical history.

Brooklyn said Hims’ mental health care program includes psychiatry and speech therapy.

Representatives of both companies also say that they encourage patients to get help in person if needed.

Mehrotra worries more broadly. He noted that patients’ overall health may be overlooked when customers come to these companies with a specific disease or medication in mind.

Someone who visits a primary care physician for prevention may also be screened for depression, she noted.

“These companies are very solution-oriented,” Mehrotra said. “They don’t think about that holistic care.”

Walvick said Lemonaid collects an extensive patient medical history, addressing issues such as smoking or drug use, to provide “the best possible comprehensive care.”

Brooklyn said Hims & Hers offers safe treatment for many problems, but shouldn’t replace a primary care doctor. He added that every part of the healthcare system should focus on improving access.

“The traditional health care system in the United States has always been slow to adapt to the changing needs of our society,” he said.

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