Virtual doctor visits could become as common as face-to-face appointments because health insurers, hospital systems and employers view it as a way to clamp down on rising medical costs. They hope that by giving patients easy access to a primary care physician, it will discourage them from visiting a costly emergency room when they get sick.
The trend is emerging as millions of Americans are expected to gain health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. The influx of new patients could put a strain on some doctors' offices, possibly driving more people to the hospital for routine illnesses if they can get an appointment quickly.
"We think more and more people, as they become more familiar with telemedicine ... this is something that is just going to be commonplace," said
But for all the promise of technology to help patients, some doctors warn that an eVisit can't replace face-to-face consultation in an office.
Nonverbal cues can be very important in accurately diagnosing patients, said Dr.
"I believe telemedicine is going to serve a bigger and bigger role in increasing the efficiency that we can monitor our patients," MacLeod said. "I think there's a lot of potential there, but I don't think it'll ever replace" a personal doctor visit.
MacLeod, who is also director of emergency medicine for
And UPMC, the largest hospital network in the region, will offer the service to anyone in the state through its website starting next week.
Convenience is the big selling point of telemedicine services to patients, industry officials said. Rather than having to wait days or weeks to schedule an appointment at a doctor's office, an could be scheduled within minutes or hours, and the patient wouldn't have to leave home.
"The biggest reason we're doing this is for member convenience," said
While patients wouldn't save money -- they will have to pay a charge or co-pay similar to visiting a doctor's office -- insurers would save by not paying out claims for more costly treatment in urgent care centers and hospitals.
"Our members report to us that when they are using a Teladoc consultation, they avoid unnecessary trips to urgent care centers, which are more expensive to the consumer and the insurer," said
Teladoc has more than 6 million members signed up across the country and predicts it will have more than 7 million by January.
Members whose plans include the Teladoc service pay an office visit co-pay, which can run up to
UPMC's service -- called AnywhereCare -- will be open to anyone in the state of
In both services, a patient must establish an account and enter personal information and health history before using the service.
Teladoc physicians, who are board-certified medical doctors, can diagnose, recommend treatment and prescribe medication for minor illnesses, including cold and flu, bronchitis, allergies and infections.
UPMC AnywhereCare will use physicians and nurses from its network of urgent care centers to consult with patients online.
An eVisit with a Teladoc physician is guaranteed to take place within an hour after an online request is made, and the average wait time is 16 minutes in
Patients can request an Anywhere-Care eVisit 24 hours a day, but the video consultations will be scheduled from
"We can't afford to not get into this space," Sokolovich said. "It's where industry is moving."
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