The chief physician officer of a five-hospital system explains how she allayed the concerns of skeptical physicians after the organization partnered with a virtual physician service provider.
MultiCare Health System, the Tacoma, Washington–based nonprofit with five hospitals, numerous outpatient clinics, and more than 10,000 employees, is not new to offering its patients access to virtual care. It has well-developed telemedicine initiatives in genetic counseling, obstetrics, stroke, and ICU.
Instead of leveraging its experience to expand into virtual visits for patients needing a primary care doctor, however, MultiCare executives have decided to outsource the task.
Despite its technological expertise (MultiCare hospitals and ambulatory clinics recently won Stage 7 HIMSS awards), the system is partnering with San Francisco-based Doctor on Demand, a virtual physician service provider that gives patients access to a doctor via smartphone, tablet, or computer.
The service is meant for patients with common ailments such as colds, sore throats, eye infections, rashes, and the like; it is not intended for patients with chronic conditions or cancer. The cost is just $40 per virtual visit and the virtual physicians can prescribe most medications.
"The reason [for partnering] is speed to market," says Claire Spain-Remy, MD, chief physician officer at MultiCare. "It takes a while to build the physician population. They have experience, and we know patients want it."
Claire Spain-Remy, MD
The drive to satisfy consumer demand for virtual physician visits is accelerating at a quick pace. In addition to MultiCare's move, UnitedHealthcare recently announced that it will cover telemedicine visits for most of its members by next year.
As the nation's largest commercial health insurer, UnitedHealthcare often sets the tone for coverage decisions by other health plans. That means hospitals, health systems, and physician practices that are absent in this space now will need to start considering the implications of offering in-person visits only.
Spain-Remy says MultiCare was "constantly" thinking about expanding its telemedicine services into its primary care settings, and the initial discussions were about doing it themselves. Ultimately, she says, a partnership accomplished MultiCare's main aim of rapidly giving its patients greater access to primary care services.
"To build something out, you have to develop technology, you have to make sure you can grow clinical staff, and manage it, as well," she says. "If you have a willing partner who can do that, [you can] get to market in a short period."
Jacqueline Fellows is a contributing writer at HealthLeaders Media.