Walgreens, insurers push expansion of virtual doctor visits

Jun 10, 2015, 9:36 AM

Millions of people will be able to see a doctor on their smartphones or laptops for everyday ailments once the nation’s largest drugstore chain and two major insurers expand a budding push into virtual health care.

Walgreens said Wednesday that it will offer a smartphone application that links doctor and patients virtually in 25 states by the end of the year. That growth comes as UnitedHealth Group and the Blue Cross-Blue Shield insurer Anthem prepare to make their own non-emergency telemedicine services available to about 40 million more people by next year.

Doctors have used video feeds and other technology for years to treat patients in rural areas or remote locations. But experts say growing smartphone use and customer demand are fueling a rapid expansion of the practice, called telemedicine, into everyday care the family doctor used to handle. Now this push is gaining an additional boost from health care companies with broad, national reach.

The American Telemedicine Association estimates that about 450,000 patients will see a doctor through the Internet this year for a primary care consultation. That’s a small slice of the roughly 15 million people who will have care delivered by telemedicine, which has mostly been used by specialist doctors. But the primary care portion has probably doubled over the past couple years, said Jon Linkous, CEO of the nonprofit association.

“I would say without a doubt it’s the fastest area of growth in telemedicine,” he said. “There’s this convenience factor that makes it so compelling to consumers.”

Drugstores, grocers and big retailers like Wal-Mart have been opening clinics inside their stores for years now, giving patients several less-expensive alternatives to a doctor’s office when they need help. Internet doctor visits aim to offer even more convenience by providing care wherever the patient is located.

Programs offered by Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. and the insurers give customers around-the-clock access to doctors who can diagnose and treat conditions like allergies, a sinus infection or pink eye that don’t require a physical exam.

The extent of the care a patient receives can vary by state. Some regulators prevent a doctor from using a telemedicine visit to write prescriptions for controlled substances or abortion-inducing medicines. Some states also require a doctor to have an established relationship with a patient, which might include a physical or mental exam, before allowing them to do a telemedicine visit.

These virtual visits can cost around $49 for patients with no coverage or insurance that makes them pay a high deductible. That compares with typical prices of $70 for a clinic or more than $100 for a doctor’s office visit.

Walgreens started testing its app last December on smartphones and is expanding it to both tablets and personal computers.

UnitedHealth Group Inc., the nation’s largest health insurer, just started covering telemedicine visits earlier this year for about a million people with employer-sponsored health plans. The insurer aims to expand that to 20 million customers next year.

Anthem Inc. started its LiveHealth Online service in 2013 by offering it to a few thousand people. It now provides the service in 44 states and also expects 20 million of its customers to have access by next year.

Doctors say telemedicine can help improve access to care for many patients, as long as the care is good, a record of the patient visit makes it back to that person’s regular doctor and safety isn’t compromised.

Dr. Robert Wergin expects to do more telemedicine visits in the future as more insurers begin to cover it. The Milford, Nebraska, doctor said it can help many of his patients who are older and have a hard time getting out of the house.

“I can see a real benefit there,” he said.

But the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians also cautioned that telemedicine has limits. He noted, for instance, that one of his patients recently wound up having quadruple bypass surgery after coming to see him for a burning sensation in his chest. The physician could rule out acid reflux as a potential cause by examining the patient’s abdomen, something a doctor couldn’t do in a virtual visit.

Walgreens said the doctors in its program are trained to quickly determine whether a patient needs more care than they can provide during a virtual visit.

“We’re very careful in only using telemedicine for certain conditions that are amenable to this,” Walgreens Chief Medical Officer Dr. Harry Leider said. “We’re not treating heart attacks.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Health

Pasika Bagerimana stands outside a temporary shelter she shares with others who fled fighting, in N...
Associated Press

Rebel violence in eastern Congo causes hunger to soar

NYIRAGONGO, Congo (AP) — The last thing Pasika Bagerimana remembers before her sons died were their cries of hunger. But the 25-year-old mother had nothing to feed them. “‘Mom, I need to eat. Can you give me food?'” they pleaded with her. Daniel, 2, and Bonane, 5, died just weeks apart in July after fleeing […]
6 hours ago
FILE- A national library employee shows the gold Nobel Prize medal awarded to the late novelist Gab...
Associated Press

Nobel season is here: 5 things to know about the prizes

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — The beginning of October means Nobel Prize season. Six days, six prizes, new faces from around the globe added to the world’s most elite roster of scientists, writers, economists and human rights leaders. This year’s Nobel season kicks off Monday with the medicine award, followed by daily announcements: physics on Tuesday, […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Poland adds pregnancy to patients’ medical data

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A new regulation that came into force in Poland Saturday requiring pregnancy information to be uploaded to the national digital system has raised concerns among women’s organizations that it could be another means for the conservative government to control women’s lives. Women’s groups suggest the Health Ministry regulation would enable authorities […]
1 day ago
FILE - Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is welcomed to the stage by Maine Gov. Paul L...
Associated Press

Shying from Trump, ex-Maine Gov. Paul LePage seeks job back

YARMOUTH, Maine (AP) — When then-Maine Gov. Paul LePage endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, he credited himself as a prototype for the insurgent presidential candidate. “I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular, so I think I should support him since we are one of the same cloth,” said LePage, whose two terms in […]
1 day ago
Ketanji Brown Jackson, the second-youngest justice on the current Supreme Court, will join her coll...
Associated Press

Supreme Court poised to keep marching to right in new term

WASHINGTON (AP) — With public confidence diminished and justices sparring openly over the institution’s legitimacy, the Supreme Court on Monday will begin a new term that could push American law to the right on issues of race, voting and the environment. Following June’s momentous overturning of nearly 50 years of constitutional protections for abortion rights, […]
1 day ago
This photo provided by ALS patient Brian Wallach shows him and his wife, Sandra Abrevaya, at their ...
Associated Press

NIH to fund unproven ALS drugs under patient-backed law

WASHINGTON (AP) — When patients with a deadly diagnosis and few treatment options have tried to get unapproved, experimental drugs, they have long faced a dilemma: Who will pay? Responsibility for funding so-called compassionate use has always fallen to drugmakers, though many are unwilling or unable to make their drugs available for free to dying […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Sanderson Ford

Don’t let rising fuel prices stop you from traveling Arizona this summer

There's no better time to get out on the open road and see what the beautiful state of Arizona has to offer. But if the cost of gas is putting a cloud over your summer vacation plans, let Sanderson Ford help with their wide-range selection of electric vehicles.
...
Mayo Clinic Orthopedics and Sports Medicine

Why your student-athlete’s physical should be conducted by a sports medicine specialist

Dr. Anastasi from Mayo Clinic Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Tempe answers some of the most common questions.
(Courtesy Condor)...
Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines shows passion for destinations from Sky Harbor with new-look aircraft

Condor Airlines brings passion to each flight and connects people to their dream destinations throughout the world.
Walgreens, insurers push expansion of virtual doctor visits