Aetna Takes the Plunge

Gary Baldwin, for HealthLeaders Media, January 8, 2008
Buried in the blizzard of year-end holiday distractions was an announcement from Aetna that could prove, in hindsight, to be one of those watershed events. Just before Christmas (probably the least effective time to put out a press release), the insurance giant said it will pay for Web visit consultations to physicians in more than 30 specialties. Aetna has hooked up with RelayHealth, an online connectivity vendor that was acquired by another giant, McKesson, in June 2006.

A handful of physicians have been using the Relay technology, which enables secure messaging between physicians and patients. For non-urgent matters, this can be a real convenience for patients no doubt. How many times have you gone to the doctor, only to forget to ask a question? Or how many times have you had to skip work for a visit to resolve what proved to be a minor issue? In this column, I have publicly pined for such interactive capability with my own physician.

But despite the advantages for us patients, unless physicians can be paid for such visits and services, what good does the technology do them? I have interviewed many physicians who have put in EMR technology. Some have even opened up their scheduling system and clinical records to their patients, who can access their own chart electronically. But when the discussion shifts to online consultations, or so-called "e-visits," the tone changes. Physicians invariably say the same thing: Until there's payer support, we have no incentive.

Well now, at least for Aetna patients, that is starting to change. That's not to say this technology will spread like wildfire. Patients continue to have misgivings about the security of sharing health data online, as several recent surveys have attested. And physicians will have to, in the words of the management consultants, "reengineer their workflows" to make it happen.

I'm not one to make predictions. But I think that connectivity services that pull patients and providers together can only go up. This is, after all, a service industry. And the one-on-one relationships between consumers and providers comprise the cornerstone.

Gary Baldwin is technology editor of HealthLeaders magazine. He can be reached at
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