The Wall Street Journal is reporting that virtual physician visits are on the rise, and more payors are viewing such visits as a way to reduce the cost of care while also making care more convenient for patients.  UnitedHealth, Aetna, and most recently, WellPoint are now offering such services or will be soon.

According to the article, online physician visits are generally with primary-care physicians with specialties such as family medicine and are supposed to be used for relatively minor, acute needs, rather than serving as a continuing source of regular care. In Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota’s program, the most common diagnoses include sinus infections, urinary-tract infections, and pinkeye.

Supporters of such services say they reduce costs by avoiding costly emergency room visits.  However, some state regulators and doctors’ groups are not so sure.  According to the article, they argue that the remote visits can make sense when a patient is communicating with his or her regular doctor, but care may suffer when patients are connecting with a physician who may be in another city or state.  Current states’ regulatory schemes also create problems.  Only 13 states clearly allow doctors to establish a patient relationship (which is typically required to prescribe drugs) without at least an initial in-person visit.

Our Insight.  Your Advantage.  Given the increasing use of virtual physician visits by private payors, providers should be analyzing their role in these types of services.  Whether providers choose to offer virtual services themselves, or offer such services through a contractor, or choose not to offer such services, providers should explore the latest technology in order to continue to meet their patients’ needs.

The full article is located here (subscription required).