How Telemedicine Companies Are Making Healthcare Faster and Cheaper, and Its Marketing Edgier

Hipper than traditional providers, they're gaining traction with consumers

Telemedicine companies are changing the face of healthcare marketing. Mr. Murdoch/Getty Images

When Zachariah Reitano was a teenager, he suffered erectile dysfunction and—like many of the 30 million American men who experience ED—he was embarrassed by it. Unlike most of them, though, he has a father who’s a doctor specializing in men’s sexual health, so Reitano was comfortable asking for help. That decision wound up saving his life: His ED was a symptom of an undiagnosed heart condition.

The health scare gave Reitano, now 27, a sense of purpose—he wanted to make it easier for others suffering from embarrassing conditions to get treatment.

So in 2017, he founded Ro, a subscription-based healthcare startup—a niche called telemedicinewith more than $91 million in venture capital. Ro has two verticals: Zero focuses on smoking cessation, and Roman caters to men who suffer from erectile dysfunction, genital herpes, hair loss and other conditions. Users pay $15 to message, call or video chat with a licensed physician who works for or is contracted by the company. After a physician determines that a patient has ED, for example, the physician writes a prescription to be filled either at an outside pharmacy or through Ro. The service sends discreetly packaged personalized shipments of medication to customers who buy it through the company. 

Ro: A subway ad for Roman stands up for men with erectile dysfunction.

So far, Ro has facilitated more than a million patient-physician interactions, says Reitano. And though it doesn’t take insurance, it does speed up access to healthcare. (While some telemedicine companies accept insurance, others skip it altogether and charge low out-of-pocket fees.) According to Reitano, it takes roughly 29 days to see a doctor in the United States. By contrast, Ro patients get a response from physicians within 24 hours, and they pay far less than they would in time spent getting to an office and in co-pays. 

“One of the best things about telemedicine is that we don’t have to choose between cost, quality and convenience,” notes Reitano. “We can offer less-expensive, higher-quality and more-convenient care through software and limited retail infrastructure. On the pharmacy side, we don’t have to pay for expensive retail locations, which allows us to have a different cost structure.”

Telemedicine companies are also changing the face of healthcare marketing. Gone are the days when ads for wellness products featured a silver-haired couple holding hands on a beach or staring into a meadow’s middle distance. In this new era, healthcare startups embrace an edgier tone in marketing materials. Websites and out-of-home ads on subways, billboards and elsewhere depict real customers and real healthcare providers. Young women with multiple ear piercings. Interracial couples lounging at home. Men with dreadlocks. A team of clinicians smiling, their arms around each other’s shoulders, as if they’re at brunch. There are people of all colors, if not quite all ages or weights.

Part of this marketing shift is regulation related, says Katelyn Watson, vp for marketing at Nurx, an online women-oriented healthcare startup that accepts insurance. Nurx offers physician consultations, regular shipments of birth control, home HPV screening kits and Truvada, an FDA-approved HIV prophylactic.

Nurx: The brand’s marketing materials speak to empowering women.

Drugmakers have historically faced limits on what they can show in ads, Watson explains. “[But] we’re a little bit different because we’re providing a service; we’re not a drug manufacturer,” she says. “What that means is we have choices in how we build our brands.” 

Although, one remaining obstacle for telemedicine companies is that they’re regulated at the state level based on where customers—not the businesses—are located. That’s why not every company is available in every state.

Patients’ pain points

Nurx will relaunch and broaden its offerings within the next three months. (Watson declined to share details.) The company’s forthcoming campaign features vibrant photos of customers who answered an open casting call designed to reflect diversity. Images are overlaid with script-based fonts expressing sentiments about women’s empowerment and control over their bodies.

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This story first appeared in the Feb. 4, 2019, issue of Brandweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Sara Ivry is Brooklyn-based freelance writer, editor and podcaster.