Telemedicine and mobile health’s popularity and efficacy have spurred a plethora of innovations, not the least of which is the online diagnosis of common ailments.
One integrated health system in Minnesota, which functions both as a healthcare provider and insurer, has witnessed growing popularity of its e-diagnosis system. Called Virtuwell, the online service of HealthPartners has treated around 22,00o patients since its launch in October 2010, said Kevin Palattao, the service’s vice president.
Patients log on to the Virtuwell website, select the symptoms they are having and enter information about their medical history, including allergies and any medications they are on. A nurse practitioner reviews the information and texts or emails back a treatment plan, which may include filling a prescription, in 30 minutes. The patient can also request to speak with a nurse practitioner, and the service is available 24 hours, all year round.
“We are trying to leverage our know-how about clinical protocols with online and modern communication tools to deliver these more affordable and convenient healthcare experiences for patients,” Palattao said in a phone interview.
The premise for Virtuwell is simple: to treat common ailments — like bladder infections, acne, cold, cough and allergy as well as sunburn and ear pain — safely, quickly and in an affordable manner, Palattao said.
In fact, the service costs $40 or less, depending on insurance co-pay, and a nurse practitioner texts or emails the diagnosis and treatment plan in half an hour. Patients don’t have to take time off from work and wait at the clinic or an urgent care center. Nor do they have to shell out a lot of money to see the doctor in person.
“At Virtuwell’s price point on average we are saving $70 per visit over all other venues,” Palattao said. “We have saved probably over $1.5 million for Minnesota and Wisconsin residents who have used our service.”
And in terms of time, patients can save between two to four hours, he said.
However, not all patients can be treated through telemedicine. If during the course of the e-visit, the nurse practitioner determines that lab work or imaging or detailed analysis needs to be done, the patient is directed to go to a clinic or other in-person center, Palattao said. In fact, since Virtuwell launched, 40,000 patients were told that they needed to come to get checked out instead of getting a diagnosis online.
“In essence these patients received free triage,” Palattao said.
While HealthPartners introduced Virtuwell in October 2010, earlier in the spring Park Nicollet Health Services began to offer a similar service powered by a Minnesota software company named Zipnosisfor $25. A year later, Park Nicollet did not renew its contract with Zipnosis. A spokesman for Park Nicollet wasn’t immediately able to say whether the health system plans to offer such a service again.
Meanwhile Zipnosis has found a taker in Fairview Health Services. Since January, Fairview is offering Minnesota residents the option of online diagnosis. Fairview alsooffers a virtual diagnosis through a video platform where patients can use the Internet to schedule a remote, video appointment that enables a conversation between them and their doctor.
Another Twin Cities provider — Allina Health — has been offering ane-diagnosis toolthrough its MyChart service since September. The service costs $35 and is submitted to patients’ insurance providers. Unlike Virtuwell, the service is not 24 hours (it is only available between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., seven days a week) and takes slightly longer for a diagnosis — one hour.