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Tool built to 'mimic' face-to-face exams

Jun 01 2013


By Lisa Bernard-Kuhn

Visiting a doctor will soon be as easy as logging onto a computer for hundreds of thousands of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield members in Ohio.

But people in Kentucky won’t have access due to a state law requiring a doctor to physically examine a patient to write a prescription.

Next month, Anthem will begin rolling out a newly launched partnership with Live Health Online, a web-based tool that offers virtual doctor visits for time-strapped patients.

“The tool is built to mimic all the things that happen in a doctor’s office visit,” said John Jesser, vice president of provider engagement strategy at Anthem. “Seeing a doctor like this is often more appropriate and less expensive than going to the emergency room or Urgent Care, or worse, not being seen at all.”

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The web-based visits usually last about 10 minutes and start at $45. Physicians can diagnosis a range of conditions and patients can select from a lineup of pediatricians, family physicians and specialists without stepping a foot out of their home or office. Prescriptions can be written for common medications like antibiotics, but not for drugs like Viagra or controlled substances (pain killers).

Live Health Online, created by Boston-based American Well, is among a flurry of web-based tools launched in recent years that are expected to transform the way acute and even primary care is delivered across the country. Other insurers – including United Healthcare, Aetna and Cigna – are using similar technologies.

Globally, the “telemedicine” market – where products like Live Health Online compete with similar web, mobile and phone-based products – is expected to grow to $27.3 billion in 2016, up more 18 percent from 2011, according to BBC Research based in Wellesley, Mass.

Proponents say the technology offers unprecedented access to health care and can help curb the budget-busting costs of emergency room or nonweekday doctor visits.

“Not everyone can access a doctor office from 9 to 5,” said Jesser. “We also know that through health-care reform, more physicians will be needed, and the uninsured population that’s entering in the system isn’t bringing more doctors with them.”

But some physicians are less enthusiastic.

“With new technology, there’s always a little bit of sexiness and excitement, but it all comes with pluses and minuses,” said Dr. Reid Blackwelder, president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Telemedicine tools like Live Health Online can play critical roles, especially in rural areas where access to health care is limited and travel time to doctors’ offices is lengthy, says Blackwelder, who has a practice in Bristol, Tenn.

“But the real risk is for the patient to believe that this kind of access replaces the relationship with their primary care physician,” he says. “To fully diagnose a patient you have never seen face-to-face is dangerous, and while we believe these kinds of visits are appropriate, it should only be with an established patient that we have actually seen in our practice before.”

In addition to some physician attitudes, another challenge limiting the use of the technology are laws that vary state to state, said Jesser.

“We’re working this across the country to help modernize health rules so that common sense prevails,” said Jesser.

Anthem hopes to eventually offer tool to 3 million Ohioans

Anthem contends the new tool is an added convenience for its members and not a replacement for a primary-care physician. Ohio is among the first states where the insurer is working to align its members’ benefits with telemedicine options. Other resources that could be coming include health kiosks set up at businesses that allow employees to connect online directly with physicians for basic health screenings.

“The level of interest we’re seeing from employers has been really exciting,” said Tim Schmalz, regional vice president of sales for Anthem.

“We’ve even seen large employers going to the extent of setting up quiet rooms that will allow their employees to access (Live Health Online) when they need it.”

For now, Anthem isn’t saying which employer groups it’s targeting, but it is pushing an information campaign out to businesses that cover about 600,000 employees, Jesser said.

Those employees will be able to log onto Live Health Online, find a doctor, and see a breakdown of their benefits and insurance coverage for the online visit.

Doctors will offer members live consultations from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, including holidays.

In some cases, businesses will even be able to negotiate co-payments that are lower for a Live Health Online visit than other medical facility visits. Anthem first launched Live Health Online in February for a “few hundred” members in California. This summer, it expects to push the tool out to up to 2.8 million Californians.

“We’re just getting started with on-site events at employers and we’ll be doing an email campaign,” said Jesser.

Anthem hopes to eventually offer the tailored program to its more than 3 million Ohio members. ■

I cover how the health care industry affects you and your family. You can reach me at lbernard@enquirer.com


Article and video on the Cincinnati.com website here.