Telemedicine companies are struggling to serve 'extreme volumes' of patients as coronavirus calls surge

Key Points
  • Telemedicine companies are seeing unprecedented volumes of patients trying to use their service. 
  • Hospitals and health insurers are encouraging patients with suspected coronavirus symptoms to try a virtual service first, rather than coming into the doctor where they might infect others. 
  • Some of these companies say their IT is breaking down. Others are frantically hiring hundreds of doctors to meet the demand. 
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Telemedicine services are more important now than ever. But some hospitals say their technology tools are breaking down, as huge volumes of people try to consult with a doctor about their symptoms. 

At Cleveland Clinic, which is encouraging patients worried about coronavirus symptoms to use a virtual service called Express Care Online, three providers told CNBC that the technology has been spotty all day, crashed multiple times, and resulted in delays of more than an hour. The people declined to be named because they were not authorized by Cleveland Clinic to speak on behalf of their organization.

The hospital chain has asked via social media that patients avoid going straight to the emergency room, so the ER could be saved for critical cases. Instead, it has asked them to use Express Care Online so that patients who can remain home to recover can do so without infecting anyone else. 


The telemedicine provider powering the service is a privately-held company called American Well. The two companies announced a partnership months before the coronavirus pandemic, in the fall of 2019.

Because of the problems, one of the doctors said patients are becoming frustrated with the wait times and hanging up. Another Cleveland Clinic provider is starting to move their appointments to later in the week and is holding off on scheduling time with any more patients until the technology is fixed. Currently, they see a grey screen with a loading circle when they try to login to start a consult with a patient. 

American Well's president Roy Schoenberg, in an email, acknowledged the problems and said that the company is working to fix both the wait times and the IT crashes in the wake of "extreme volumes." He said that telehealth services, including his own, are generally seeing "(IT) loads quadruple" since Friday. Cleveland Clinic did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

"Certain geographies where the public impact of the virus is highest have seen wait times sky rocket from 5 to 10 minutes to 60 to 70 minutes," he wrote. According to Schoenberg, that is resulting in both service crashes or freezes with "voluntary member disconnects," which providers might experience as call drops.

"(It's) not a pretty sight," he acknowledged. 

American Well isn't the only telemedicine provider frantically trying to meet the increased demand for services. 

Doctor on Demand, a start-up that offers physician visits for $50 to $75, isn't experiencing IT glitches but it is frantically trying to hire hundreds of doctors. Likewise, Robbie Cape, the CEO of 98point6, another consumer-focused telemedicine start-up, said it needs to recruit about 100 doctors in the next few weeks to meet the demand. 

Doctor on Demand's CEO Hill Ferguson, said the company is talking to "anyone who's willing to come help." 

Thus far, Ferguson said, the IT is holding stable, despite that the company has seen "unprecedented demand." Ferguson describes the infrastructure his engineering team built as "built to handle 10x the scale."

The big gap, however, is that there simply enough clinicians available for all the patients flooding in. About half of the patients suspect they might have coronavirus; but the rest are calling in to address routine medical needs because they have been advised to avoid seeing a doctor in person. 

"We are surging, and I don't expect us to return to previous volumes," he said. 

American Well Co-CEO on telemedicine and its role in fighting coronavirus outbreak