Technology, virtual visits increasing patient access to care
Sep 02 2014
Anthem marketing 24-hour kiosks to large employers.
Insurance companies and hospitals are continuing to develop and offer new digital tools to connect patients with health providers at the click of a button, day or night.
Private commercial insurer Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Ohio — with 3.3 million people enrolled in health plans in Ohio — is rolling out MedStop Consoles, or kiosks, that give consumers 24-hour access to physicians through virtual visits, said Marcus Taylor, regional vice president of sales.
The kiosks, powered by the technology LiveHealth Online, are being marketed toward large employers with over 1,000 employees, Taylor said. The kiosks cost about $50,000, he said.
The Mercy Health system in Cincinnati has been offering virtual visits for about 18 months ago through the patient portal MyChart — accessed on computers or smart devices, said Dr. Stephen Beck, chief medical informatics officer for Mercy Health.
Beck said the network has about 200,000 active users on MyChart, which also allows full access to their latest lab and X-ray results and ease of scheduling appointments and requesting refills.
“Gone are the days of requesting a copy,” Beck said, adding there’s about 2.5 percent growth in users each month.
Beck said the network is currently investigating different technology for “pods” to be placed at various locations for virtual care. But he said that some insurance companies remain a “barrier” for virtual care because they won’t reimburse for the visits.
Beck said another challenge to launching pod-like systems for the virtual visits is the need for “sophisticated staff to clean between patients and keep everything working.”
More than half of all U.S. hospitals now use some form of telemedicine — defined as the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve a patient’s clinical health status, according to American Telemedicine Association.
Beck said offering patients more options for convenient care on their own schedule helps reduce stressors such as travel, leaving work and child care.
“These tools enable more improved communication with patients,” Beck said. “Patients that are engaged are happier and tend to be more compliant with care.”
For employees at Anthem’s headquarters in Mason, a LiveHealth Online kiosk was installed this month. The company held a two-day open house this week for employees to test out the system.
The kiosk allows the user to scroll through available providers and see their education, background and qualifications before making a selection. The kiosk also lets the user search and select nearby pharmacies in case the physician needs to write an electronic, non-narcotic prescription.
Dr. Matt Grandstaff, of Texas, has been part of the online care group for nearly two years, and has been treating patients across 35 states through the LiveHealth Online kiosk since January.
“It’s another dimension,” Grandstaff said. “I do get some (patients) a little nervous when it first starts out, but it’s no different than if they come into my emergency department.”
The MedStop Console is not suited for emergency needs but rather common ailments including headache, flu-like symptoms, diabetes, urinary tract infections, allergies, skin conditions such as eczema, nausea or diarrhea, minor burns and sprains.
In April, Anthem donated a LiveHealth Online kiosk to Cincinnati nonprofit Talbert House, which provides transitional housing for homeless men. The company American Well, that owns the LiveHealth Online technology, also donated 500 doctor visits to Talbert House.
Teri Nau, community relations director at Talbert House, said the residents have been using the kiosk for items such as flu-like symptoms, irregular heart rates, diet education around diabetes and sleeplessness.
“The response has been great; it’s been about access to care,” Nau said. “We don’t have a doctor or nurse on site.”
Nau said up to 60 men live at the facility at a given time, with about 50 percent being veterans. She said many have mental health issues, substance abuse problems, and housing, transportation and employment needs.
Nau said the residents have been using about 15-20 visits a month.
“It really transforms how we can integrate behavioral health care with primary health care for overall wellness,” Nau said.
Taylor said the kiosk is equipped with several pieces of equipment for the patient to check and enter their own vital signs, including blood pressure, weight, temperature and blood oxygen level.
Grandstaff said the quality of the cameras give him a clear view into someone’s ears, throat, eyes, or up close to a skin rash. The doctor can also send the patient follow-up education and information in a digital format.
Grandstaff said the kiosk and other virtual visits on smart devices can actually provide the patient a more personal experience with the doctor because they can access it from home where they are most comfortable.
“It’s more personal for the patient; they don’t have to get in their car at 3 a.m. in the rain and wait three hours,” Grandstaff said. “It’s a much more pleasant experience.”
A virtual visit costs a flat fee of $49, partially covered through insurance. An average emergency department visit in Ohio costs about $1,500, and a visit to a primary care doctor is about $115, according to Anthem.
“There’s an exciting future here with virtual care; the provider can reach beyond the four walls of their clinic,” Beck said.