Telehealth Growing as a New Way to Practice Medicine

Telehealth services from companies such as American Well are a growing option for patients who can't make it to the doctor's office and for doctors who'd rather not be tied to a practice.

When a president touts face-to-face video chats between doctors and patients in a State of the Union address, as President Obama did Jan. 25, it's clear that telehealth has made strides as a real option for doctors, pharmacists and patients, particularly for military veterans in rural areas.

Telehealth allows health care professionals and patients to connect in real time through a Web or phone connection.

While addressing the need to increase coverage of high-speed wireless networks to 98 percent of all Americans within the next five years, President Obama dropped a mention of telehealth: "This isn't about faster Internet or fewer dropped calls. ... It's about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor."

Through insurance companies such as OptumHealth, WellPoint and Blue Cross Blue Shield, doctors and patients are using the Online Care telehealth platform from American Well to connect through Internet video chats or simply voice in real time.

Other companies in the telehealth space include Epic Systems, RelayHealth and Kaiser Permanente with its KP OnCall product.

From their homes, patients can hold video chats with pharmacists through pharmacy chain RiteAid. In the stores, they can use a computer and Webcam in a "semiprivate space" to consult with physicians, according to Dr. Roy Schoenberg, president and CEO of American Well, which launched Online Care in January 2009.

"We can completely revolutionize the expectation of the pharmacy," Schoenberg explained to eWEEK. "When a patient is going into pharmacies, they can actually get care there-see a physician, then walk over and fill [the prescription].

In addition to availability to all residents in Hawaii as well as areas of New York and Texas, all residents of Minnesota can access the service. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota was one of the first companies to offer telehealth technology to its employees and later rolled out the service to all residents in the state. Telehealth sessions cost $45.

Janel Woods, a manager in learning development at Blue Cross in Egan, Minn., participated in a pilot session for Online Care. When her 8-year-old son was getting migraines during soccer season, she turned to Blue Cross Minnesota's Online Care Anywhere portal for help. She was concerned about missing work and her son missing school. So both she and her son held a video chat with a doctor through a Webcam.

"The physician ended up sending me some research," Woods told eWEEK. "I happened to use it more as like a consultation. I wanted to find out if there were less costly solutions," she said.