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The Business Case for Virtual Urgent Care

Rene Letourneau, for HealthLeaders Media, September 23, 2013

A telemedicine service priced at only $35 a visit creates a new access point for patients and averts ED visits.

Can healthcare be made faster, better, and cheaper all at the same time? Franciscan Health System, a six-hospital network based in Tacoma, WA, last week launched a mobile health service that offers around-the-clock care for only $35 a pop. Patients and provider alike may save money; a pilot version of the initiative, called Virtual Urgent Care, avoided about 300 ED visits. The new program could be particularly attractive for patient newly insured by health insurance exchanges.

Virtual Urgent Care is aimed at care for acute symptoms via phone or video chat on a smartphone, tablet, or PC. This service was originally offered in 2010 as an employee program called Franciscan Anytime to Franciscan's employees and their dependents through its employer-sponsored health plan, which covered about 10,000 lives at that time.

The program was a success from the start, says Cliff Robertson, MD, Franciscan's COO. "Because of the time of day or because it was a weekend, those employees would have gone to the ER if they didn't have the ability to have real-time access to a physician or nurse practitioner," he says.

Leaders at Franciscan, which is part of the Catholic Health Initiatives mega-system, decided to offer the service to patients. About seven months ago, the health system quietly rolled it out under its new name to its primary care physicians' existing patients, then recently to the wider community.

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