Billing itself as a sort of Uber-for-eye-exams, telemedicine startup Opternative recently came on the scene offering a quick, inexpensive alternative to traditional optical exams that uses your computer and smartphone. Following a 25-minute online exam, an ophthalmologist will approve your results and issue a prescription for a cost of $40. No doctor visit is required.
Unfortunately, just like Uber, there’s a powerful lobby of incumbents who don’t want the status quo disrupted. Now they’re pushing legislation in several states to shut down online eye exams.
As someone who recently had to get glasses, I like the idea of an online option the next time I need a checkup (and unlike many people, I only have to walk a few blocks from my office to see an eye doctor). Of course, my first question was: “Is it accurate?” But, at least according to its clinical trial, the online version appears to be equivalent in accuracy to its analog counterpart.
The technology is approved in 45 states, and the service is currently available in 33. So, unlike transportation network companies like Uber that had to contend with onerous insurance, safety and liability questions, the regulatory status quo of telehealth services like this is that they are legal in most jurisdictions.
Indeed, telemedicine is nothing new. Through its more than 40-year history, it has shown greatpotential for cost savings in both private sector and government programs. This potential will only grow, as wearables and smartphones become more sophisticated and ubiquitous. For instance, in Opternative’s case, the service is about half as expensive as a traditional eye exam. Future competitors in the space, or economies of scale, could bring costs down even further.
Unfortunately, a powerful lobby of brick-and-mortar optometrists is pushing for legislation to shut them down. In Georgia, a bill (HB 775) was passed by both houses of the state Legislature that would ban these online eye exams. Aptly listed as “restrictions on sale and dispensing of spectacles,” this legislation is clear in its purpose to protect licensed brick-and-mortar optometrists from unwanted competition. Now it’s up to Gov. Nathan Deal to sign or veto the bill. He has until the first week of May to decide.
Blocking new telehealth applications like this one will only serve to raise prices, reduce the ability of low-income or rural individuals to access care and stifle future smartphone-driven innovations. As former Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote in a column for USA Today:
There are more than 100,000 smartphone apps for health purposes, including one that detects heart attacks and another that helps diabetics monitor their blood sugar….And every day more are invented. Many of these smartphone enabled apps and devices will be better than the methods they’re replacing — more convenient, faster, less expensive, and, in a growing number of cases, more accurate…. In healthcare, however, there is a growing effort by the existing, expensive systems to defend old, costly, less convenient, and slower methods by simply outlawing most of the competition.
What’s happening in Georgia, Indiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Oklahoma and elsewhere, is a shameless attempt to capture the regulatory apparatus by a rent-seeking cartel that wants to preserve the status quo at all costs. If these acts of cronyism are allowed to proceed unchecked, they inevitably will contribute to a disastrous chilling effect for innovation in the health sector — an area already encumbered by a massive regulatory burden.
This will only make us all poorer, and less healthy.