Part one of a two-part series:
The doctor doesn't have to see you now.
Thanks to new technology, patients may not always need a face-to-face visit with their doctor to get the care they need.
And thanks to a growing awareness of this fact on the part of health plans, structured, Internet-facilitated and reimbursable "virtual visits" are on the verge of entering mainstream medicine. Virtual visits also are seen as a tool that will save money, provide convenient care and maybe do something to solve the problem of patients not having access to their doctors.
This is especially true in Minnesota, where five of the six largest private health plans reimburse physicians about $35 per virtual office visit, and the last holdout announced that it will soon join the club. Unresolved, however, are issues over standards for billing and legal jurisdiction matters concerning doctors conducting e-visits during travel to states they are not licensed to practice in.
Health information technology vendors are helping to bring the parties together, and a message is being spread that virtual visits benefit patients by offering affordable and convenient access to their doctors; help providers more efficiently process routine cases; aid employers by reducing absenteeism created when workers take time off to see their physician; andperhaps most significantassist insurance companies in saving money.
"I would hope that 100% of the companies will be doing this in the next few years," said independent family physician and e-visit advocate Michelle Eads of Woodland Park, Colo. "Once the insurance companies get it through their thick skulls that it saves money, they'll be more than willing to do it."
Eads is also the sole practitioner in a pilot study Kaiser Permanente of Colorado Springs is conducting exploring the use of virtual visits by in-network independent physicians. She receives $50 for an online consultation and said preliminary figures from 2006 show that Kaiser is saving between $70 and $120 on each virtual visit.
Larry Boress, president of the Midwest Business Group on Health, said that e-visits have not been heavily pushed by his organization, but added that "our interest is in physicians adopting technology to improve the quality of care they deliver and their communication, so this is just part of that."