It’s not often that we read about efficiencies in the US healthcare system, but my experience last week with telemedicine offers some inspiration.
When a head cold lingered for seven days then worsened, I feared it had morphed into a sinus infection. Unfortunately, my Rush Medical primary care physician had recently relocated to Seattle and I hadn’t selected a replacement. As I searched my online patient portal for the nearest walk-in clinic—I spied a very attractive alternative: an electronic or ‘e-visit’ with a Rush medical professional.
A Welcome Addition to Primary Care Delivery
For $30, I filled out a questionnaire on my symptoms and submitted it online, which was reviewed, along with my medical records, by a physician assistant. Within the hour, I had a message in my online patient chart with a diagnosis of sinusitis and a text from my pharmacy saying my prescription for amoxycillin was ready for pick up. (Thanks to the CVS drive-up pharmacy window, I didn’t even have to get out of my PJs.)
E-visits and other telemedicine (also called telehealth) services that allow patients to be ‘seen’ via phone, computer or mobile app are expanding across the country. In addition to major medical centers like Rush, insurance plans and independent companies provide virtual consult options, many of which are covered by insurance.
Customer Demand for Convenience
What’s behind the trend? A major driver is the fight for primary care customers who are making provider decisions based in part on convenience. The pressure is on medical practices to meet patients when and where they need care—whether it’s a 2 a.m. consult or a Sunday morning clinic visit.
E-visits are not only an efficient option for both the patient and provider, they also help mitigate the spread of viruses and germs by allowing sick patients to stay at home. Virtual visits for common health problems should help reduce unnecessary visits to the doctor’s office and more importantly, to the ER. Follow-up appointments, monitoring chronic conditions (with the help of other technologies) and dermatology are other great uses of e-visits.
Monitoring Patient Outcomes
Questions remain as to whether quick and easy medical consults will actually increase utilization of overall healthcare services, negating any potential cost savings of virtual visits. The risk of misdiagnosis, inappropriate treatment and the overprescribing of antibiotics within the new delivery channel will have to be closely monitored and assessed.
Nevertheless, my first experience with telehealth was impressive—I especially appreciate that the service is part of the Rush system where practitioners have access to my medical records and the consult becomes part of my patient history.
When strategically implemented, carefully monitored and integrated within a system of care, e-visits will help providers more efficiently manage patient care—and give patients the opportunity to expend more of their energy toward getting better.