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Thanks to CVS, Aetna and Apple, virtual medicine is getting the marketing boost it needs

  • The largest health and technology companies in recent weeks gave a boost to a medical technology trend.
  • That trend is called "telemedicine," and involves virtual consultations.
  • Apple and Aetna both detailed plans to incorporate this technology into their offerings.
Mark Bertolini
Cameron Costa | CNBC
Mark Bertolini

Telemedicine, or virtual medical consults by phone or video, has been the "next big thing" in health care for more than a decade. But year after year, countless studies have found that telemedicine companies are held back by a lack of awareness among consumers.

Now, thanks to a marketing boost from behemoths like Apple, Aetna and CVS, telemedicine might finally take off.

When pitching the benefits of a merger with CVS, Aetna's chief executive, Mark Bertolini, detailed how technology that monitors patients from home — like bluetooth-connected glucose meters coupled with apps for virtual providers to nudge patients when their glucose levels are off — is a key part of his strategy. In other words, telemedicine.

He described this strategy as an approach that will improve care and lower skyrocketing health costs for consumers by providing "a more holistic view of each individual."

Apple's COO, Jeff Williams, also advocated for virtual medicine last week, when detailing the company's plans for its new heart-health study. In an important move, Apple chose to work with one of the largest telemedicine start-ups, American Well, so that even those without easy access to a doctor's office can still get the help they need.

'It was a huge deal'

Apple and Aetna are signaling that the future of medicine involves a lot of monitoring of patients from home, rather than at the hospital or clinic.

And that's great news for the growing crop of venture-backed companies that offer virtual consultations, home-health monitoring and digital health apps. It's finally making people aware of some technology that's been around for years, which represents a more convenient alternative than a long drive to a medical clinic. It's also an affordable option, as most telemedicine visits are covered by insurance with a small copay.

"It was a huge deal," for us, said American Well's chairman and CEO, Ido Schoenberg, when asked about the Apple partnership.

Schoenberg said telemedicine companies have made big steps in overcoming other obstacles, including payment and state-by-state regulation.

But adoption remains a challenge. Hospitals and doctor's offices might increasingly start to offer virtual consults, he said, but it doesn't mean that consumers know they exist. And few people will peruse their insurance company or employer website to find out if it's a benefit.

"For so many people, this will be a new model of care presented to them for the first time," he said.