Consumers' reliance on technology to answer ordinary questions is a driving force in healthcare, and physicians at Virginia's Bon Secours Health System are giving the initiative to provide virtual visits high marks.
In less than three months, more than 4,000 patients in Virginia have signed up for virtual visits with primary care providers at Bon Secours Health System.
Telemedicine isn't new for the nonprofit Catholic health system headquartered in Maryland. It's been in the system's hospitals, but the new service was specifically developed to address the rise in consumerism, says Louise Edwards, senior manager for business development and planning for BSHSI.
A total of 15 BSHSI primary care providers, which include a combination of physicians, medical assistants, and certified nurse practitioners, provide virtual care to patients during regular office hours, 7AM to 8AM. After hours and on the weekend calls are handled by American Well, a third-party telemedicine provider.
The health system's employees were the first group to test the platform, and Edwards says about 2,000 employees signed up in the first two weeks. Within 11 days, virtual visits were available to residents in Virginia, one of six states where the health system operates.
By April 1, the $49 virtual visits will expand to Kentucky and portions of West Virginia and Ohio. "It's in our strategic plan; that's how important it is," she says. "The future of healthcare is going there."
Virginia is one of eight states the American Telemedicine Association awarded a composite grade of "A" in a report last month. Like most technological innovations, the speed of implementation is outpacing regulation and demand. A major barrier to telemedicine is that each state makes its own regulations, but sheer demand for access may ultimately remove that hurdle.
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Currently, virtual visits are only available with primary care providers, but Herbert Cummings, COO of Bon Secours Medical Virginia Medical Group, says phase two will include specialists.
"We're floating ideas now to cardiologists and neurologists," Cummings says. "Instead of being prescriptive, we're asking, 'How could this assist you?' We believe creativity is going to come from physicians."
The use of telemedicine, whether in emergency departments or in doctors' offices, is growing significantly. The criticism it receives for being merely transactional is hollow. Consumers already flock to retail clinics for minor issues. And patient demand for virtual visits isn't likely to slow down because physicians think it disrupts care coordination.
BSHSI's aggressive schedule to expand to other states signals it is willing to work with the new ways patients engage with technology.
Jacqueline Fellows is a contributing writer at HealthLeaders Media.