These doctors will make Web calls

  • Eric Fetters<br>For the Enterprise
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 6:51am

It’s one of those winter mornings when you wake up with a lead weight pounding against the front of your head and no ability to breathe through your nose.

Add a sore throat and hacking cough, and you’re miserable. Is it merely a cold, a sinus infection or the start of something worse?

It doesn’t matter, because there’s no time to see a doctor today, even if the doctor’s office has an open appointment.

If getting a doctor’s opinion, and maybe even a prescription, required no more than a few minutes on a Web site, it would be so much easier.

That type of virtual visit with a doctor will be reality in a few weeks for Microsoft employees taking part in a pilot project with insurer Premera Blue Cross and Virginia Mason Medical Center.

“There are a lot of times when the doctor is not available or when the doctor’s appointment schedule doesn’t match with the patient’s work schedule,” said Keith Dipboye, a general internist at Virginia Mason in Seattle. “This has the potential to help our access to patients who really need an appointment.”

While insurers and medical practices have tried out e-mail communication between patients and doctors in recent years, Mountlake Terrace-based Premera is the first in the Northwest to try out the next technological step.

Like other Blue Cross plans around the nation, Premera’s project uses a Web-based program developed by California-based RelayHealth Corp. In all, 11 U.S. health insurers are using RelayHealth’s software, spokeswoman Briana Pompei said.

When the pilot program begins in January, 100 Virginia Mason doctors at a half-dozen clinics, including the one in Lynnwood, will participate. Two of those, Dr. John Peng and Dr. Ingrid Gerbino, say they’re ready to become cyberdoctors.

“I think it’s going to make patient outcomes better,” Gerbino said. “It’s human nature to put off a visit to the doctor, but with this, it’s easier for patients to do something.”

Roki Chauhan, medical director for quality at Premera, said Microsoft employees, savvy and comfortable with computers, are perfect for the tryout of Web visits.

“This is not for everyone. The way we look at this is as an additional option for our members,” he said.

Unlike e-mail, where the patient simply types a message to the doctor, the RelayHealth site asks patients a series of diagnostic questions after they type in a password to make the online transaction secure. The results of the online interview and a patient’s own comments are then relayed to the doctor’s computer. It’s more secure than e-mail or phoning a doctor, Chauhan said.

Gerbino and Peng said they see other advantages. For example, having a patient’s symptoms in writing on the screen makes it easier to add the details to that person’s medical records than when a patient calls on the phone.

The program allows doctors to attach prescriptions in their responses to patients and even send prescriptions electronically to pharmacies. It also has the capability for doctors and patients to chat online or renew ongoing prescriptions online, though those features will not be used at first.

The fee charged for a Web consultation by a doctor will be $30, according to Premera, compared with $80 to $100 for the average office visit. If a doctor decides after reading a patient’s online information that an in-person visit is required, the Web visit charge will be waived.

Scott Forslund, a Premera spokesman, added there’s “promising evidence” that the technology can reduce health care costs.

Chauhan said he hopes the pilot program answers a more pressing question for patients.

“Can you deliver quality care via a Web visit?” he said. “One of the things we hope to learn is if this is an alternative that works.”

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