Online Care Anywhere and the Future of Telemedicine

92013bcbsocaBlue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota recently handed out more than 5,000 vouchers for free physician visits to state fair attendees.

The vouchers are redeemable through Online Care Anywhere, an e-consultation service run by Blue Cross. After registering, users are able to communicate live with a physician able to answer questions, make diagnoses and prescribe medications. The service launched in 2009 as a service to be purchased by employers to offer to employees. It has since expanded to be incorporated into benefits packages to BCBS members across the country, as well as to anyone who logs onto the service. The service is currently available to residents in 30 states, but BCBS has plans to expand all 46 states that permit telemedicine.

Since its inception, the number of Online Care Anywhere users has increased significantly. "We have seen phenomenal growth," says Matthew Marek, vice president of marketing and product at BCBS of Minnesota. "We've seen an almost 200 percent increase year over year and expect that growth to continue."

Mr. Marek reports patient reaction has been very positive. He says about 80 percent of users reported saving between one to three hours of time by being able to connect with a physician from home. About 92 percent of users would refer a friend to the service.

Additionally, 94 percent see the service as a good value. "An average office visit costs between $100 and $130, and an emergency department visit can be upwards of $500," says Mr. Marek. He sees significant cost savings associated with Online Care Anywhere, where a physician visit retails for $45, and 80 percent of users feel their care has been completed and have no plans to seek in-person care.

The success of Online Care Anywhere has led Mr. Marek to believe this kind of on-demand telemedicine service will play a significant role in the future of the industry. In addition to offering access to specialty care and better serving disparate populations, on-demand telemedicine allows healthcare consumers better, cheaper access to healthcare providers. "I believe telemedicine is a way to meet consumers where they're at," he says. "As we like to say around here, it takes the headache out of being sick."

Mr. Marek recognizes telemedicine is in a developing state, but he sees increased adoption and use of telemedicine as an inevitability. "Right now, telemedicine is where online banking was a few years ago," he says. "Consumers weren't very familiar with online banking at first, but now they're extremely comfortable with banking online," he says. In a few years, he predicts telemedicine will enjoy the same level of widespread acceptance as a consumer-friendly innovation.

A bill recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives is poised to facilitate consumer access to telemedicine across the country by reducing some of the legal hurdles to expanding telemedicine programs. The Telemedicine for Medicare Act of 2013 would allow certain Medicare providers to provide telehealth services across state lines without obtaining multiple state licenses. The proposal has received support from health IT advancement advocacy groups including the American Telemedicine Association and the Health IT Now Coalition.

"This bill updates the law to account for rapid technological advances in medicine," says Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the bill's sponsor. "By reducing bureaucratic and legal barriers between Medicare patients and their doctors, it expands medical access and choice for America's seniors and the disabled."

If consumers have access to telemedicine, they will be likely to choose to use the service, says Mr. Marek, who has experienced the benefits of telemedicine firsthand. "I have a two-year-old son who seems to only get sick after 6:00 p.m. and on weekends," he says. "The ability to connect with a pediatrician after-hours has been a gift."

BCBS will continue to invest heavily in Online Care Anywhere and other telemedicine services. "We're very excited about the future of telemedicine," he says. "This is where [healthcare] is going."

More Articles on Telemedicine:

Telehealth Safe Alternative to Post-Op Visit, Study Finds
Michigan Medicaid Expansion to Allow Reimbursement for Telemedicine
Dallas Children's Debuts Neonatal Telemedicine Program

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