Laurie Fedje, of Coon Rapids, Minn., tried Virtuwell last fall when her son, Noah, had a high fever and other flu symptoms and she did not want to go out in bad weather. She said it took her about 15 minutes to answer about 50 questions about her son's health, such as whether he had ear pain, how long he had been sick, and whether he had any allergies. Within a few minutes, she received an e-mail and a call from a nurse practitioner who diagnosed him with flu and sent a prescription.
"It was wonderful," Fedje said.
Her employer, St. Paul-based Bethel University, covers the first three visits for free as an employee benefit.
About 80 percent of patients using Virtuwell have insurance, and many use the service as a covered benefit, said Kevin Palattao, a vice president at HealthPartners. He notes that Virtuwell has turned away 45,000 prospective patients because they had problems that required in-person consultations, such as chest pain or multiple chronic conditions.
The most common problems treated online are routine sinus and bladder infections, pinkeye, upper respiratory illness, and minor skin rashes, Palattao said.
OptumHealth, which operates the NowClinic, said it leaves it to physicians to determine if they can diagnose a patient via computer. "This is not intended to replace the intimacy of the doctor-patient relationship," said Chris Stidman, senior vice president. The company would not disclose how many people have used the service or how many physicians it employs.
Testing at drugstores
Camp Hill, Pa.-based Rite Aid recently began testing NowClinic in several of its drugstores in Michigan and Pennsylvania. It's a cheaper alternative to hiring doctors or nurse practitioners to work in store clinics.
At the stores, patients can pay $45 for a 10-minute teleconsultation with a doctor, or less if their employer has negotiated a reduced rate.
In a tiny office next to the pharmacy counter in one Harrisburg, Pa., Rite Aid, patients use a Web camera and microphone to talk to a doctor on a desktop computer, where they type in their symptoms, a brief medical history and their credit card information. A thermometer, blood-pressure machine and scale are available nearby.
The physician sends an electronic prescription to the store that can be picked up minutes later.
On a recent afternoon when a reporter tested the service, there was a choice of only one doctor — Dr. Pardeep Shori, an internist in Irving, Texas, who is board-certified in family medicine.
Shori said he typically treats about a dozen NowClinic patients a day. While he is unable to look into a patient's ears or throat, he noted, "The key thing you learn in medical school is that a lot of information comes from just listening."
Young, the woman who talked to a NowClinic physician from her home in Woodbury, Minn., said she would use the service again even though she now has health insurance. She was impressed when the online doctor called her three days later to see how she was feeling.
"I've never had my own primary care doctor do that," she said.
This story was reprinted from kaiserhealthnews.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communications organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.