Health insurers welcome online doctor-patient connection

Canadian component to online health care paves the way to lowering emergency room billing costs

Insurers hopeful that the phrase “the doctor is in” will soon be replaced by “the doctor and patient are online.”

It is the potential savings in reduced emergency room visits that the online model can bring which has insurers eager to have the streaming video app take off throughout North America.

“The ability to get a doctor to see you within minutes from your phone is something that people really value,” says Dr. Jonah Feldman, a health care delivery specialist at Winthrop University Hospital.

Canadian doctors have already been co-signing prescriptions for American patients, as Canadian pharmacists need that signature before they can legally fill them.

According to Tim Smith, the general manager of the Canadian International Pharmacy Association, each member keeps their own Canadian physician for doing the co-signing.

His group, CIPA, represents 64 websites operated by the 11 members of the industry group.
In the last year, several leading health care companies announced they would begin incorporating telemedicine into their offerings. Walgreens is currently rolling out a virtual doctor service in 25 states. Meanwhile, UnitedHealth Group and the Blue Cross-Blue Shield insurer Anthem prepare to make telemedicine services available to more than 40 million people by 2016.

The push toward virtual health care comes as many primary doctors are over-booked and patients struggle with their own busy schedules. At the same time, insurers and employers see an opportunity to save money by reducing pricier visits to doctors' offices and urgent care clinics.

Outsourcing care is not new. In rural areas, doctors have long relied on telephone and video connections to consult with specialists far away.

But this year an estimated 450,000 patients will see a doctor over the Internet for basic ailments like colds, infections or aches and pains, according to the American Telemedicine Association industry group.

A number of companies allow consumers to connect with a health care provider through a smartphone, tablet or computer. Some of the leading companies include Teladoc, Doctor on Demand and MDLive. Typically patients are routed to a doctor who is licensed to practice and prescribe medicine in their home state.

“If I'm managing a health plan, I clearly don't want someone to go to the emergency room for coughs, colds, sneezes or urinary infections,” said Dr. Ford Brewer, an executive with MDLive, which provides online consultations for Humana, Cigna and other companies.