Virtual doctor visits widen access, but still draw controversy

Fans of mobile healthcare and telemedicine know what the bloviators in Washington seem to be ignoring in this folly of a healthcare debate that's kept the nation so rapt for months: you can expand access to care, make doctors more efficient and save countless workplace absences without spending billions of dollars by embracing the virtual visit.

As we reported in FierceHealthIT in November, the OptumHealth division of UnitedHealth Group is teaming up with American Well to offer Internet consultations nationwide starting in 2010. The program, called NowClinic, is underway in Texas, where patients pay $45--which may or may not qualify for insurance reimbursement--for a 10-minute consult with a physician. The doctor can write prescriptions for non-controlled substances. It's a whole lot cheaper than a standard office visit and it prevents people from having to take several hours off of work for a lengthy appointment.

Naturally, the medical establishment is fighting this disruptive innovation. "From our perspective, we still are a little bit concerned that a relationship can be established online with no prior relationship," April Troutman Donahue, executive director of the Hawaii Medical Association, is quoted as saying in the New York Times. Hawaii, of course, is the first in the nation to roll out American Well's technology statewide, thanks to a 2008 change in state law and a payer contract with Hawaii Medical Service Association, the local Blue Cross and Blue Shield affiliate.

For more:
- see this New York Times article