FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Skip the Waiting Room For Virtual Visits to the Doctor
By JOHANNA BENNETT
DOW JONES NEWSWIRES
In a nation where 66% of adults have access to the Internet, it
was only a
matter of time before people began using the Web to get medical
But until now, health insurers have held back from covering online
consultations while they studied the potential cost savings, the
the service to plan members and patient privacy issues.
Last month, Blue Shield of California became the first major U.S.
insurer to agree to cover online consultations between patients
physicians, paying doctors $20 for a "Web call." The decision
California's third-largest health insurer could spark similar policy
at other health plans during the next decade. The option is already
study at Cigna Corp., Health Net Inc., First Health Group Corp.,
Health Systems Inc. and ConnectiCare.
"It will grow slowly, but steadily," said Mike Barrett,
analyst for Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.
Beginning next year, Blue Shield of California's 2.3 million members
able to send electronic messages to their physicians using a secure
portal designed by RelayHealth Corp. of Emeryville, Calif. Existing
can use the portal to schedule an appointment, request a prescription
or ask questions about nonurgent medical concerns such as back pain,
seasonal allergies, sore throats and earaches.
"I love it," said Susan Glenn, a 42-year-old financial
analyst in Sacramento,
Calif., and one of more than 5,000 patients who participated in
pilot study. "I don't have to pay to wait for hours in a waiting
then only see my doctor for 30 seconds. I get in right away, and
I hear back
in a matter of a few hours."
"Web calls" aren't expected to completely replace office
visits, nor should
they. The medium is unsuitable for serious or complicated medical
according to experts.
But health-industry analysts agree the Internet can facilitate communication
between doctors and patients, especially regarding sensitive or
medical conditions, in a way that telephones never could. Hectic
leave doctors little time for phone conversations with patients,
who can end
up waiting a day or two for a response to a question.
If patients could communicate with doctors over the Internet, more
than 20% of
all in-office visits could be eliminated, according to HealthCast
1999 survey of health-care executives by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
result, physicians would have more time for patients with serious
concerns and employees would take less time away from work. Also,
plans could cut costs-potentially several million dollars a month-by
$20 to $25 for a Web call compared with $50 to $70 for a doctor's
There's a crimp in that scenario, however. Industry experts say
don't share their patients' enthusiasm for online consultations,
concerns such as patient privacy, malpractice liability, insurance
reimbursement and, in some cases, the potential for lost revenue.
they climb onboard, doctors want assurances they will be paid for
they dish out on the Internet, said Eric Liederman, medical director
clinical information systems at UC Davis Health System.
People, however, aren't so keen about dipping into their own wallets
for the service, which leaves it to insurers to step up to the plate.
Only 37% of patients in favor of online consultations are willing
out-of-pocket for the service, and 70% of them want to pay less
than $5 for
each "Web visit," according to figures from Harris Interactive.
"There is no
incentive for doctors to do it unless they get paid for it,"
Oddly, doctors don't charge patients for telephone consultations,
insurance companies don't reimburse for them. "If you don't
have a way to
recoup your fees, then it is just something else that is costing
said Michael Good, a physician with ProHealth Physicians in Middletown,
Conn., and a RelayHealth member.
Dr. Good said he receives between one and two Web visits a day.
doesn't charge patients who contact him with requests for referrals
appointments, he does charge between $5 and $30 for consultations.
Write to Johanna Bennett at firstname.lastname@example.org