Electronic visits with doctors on the rise

July 9, 2009 12:53:40 PM PDT
It's been many years since physicians made house calls, but now more physicians are treating patients at home via the Internet -- they're called electronic visits.

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Patricia Wong is taking her daughter to the doctor without ever leaving her Danville home. Six-year-old Mei Ling has asthma, and mom is discussing the situation online with encrypted emails. It sure beats the alternative.

"Going to the doctor's office without an appointment, sitting there waiting for an hour and you actually have a sick child, who is amongst other sick children, they are either crying or they don't want to be there. I can actually send an email to her pediatrician, and if he says come in, he has already notified his front office and I'm there," said Wong.

Dr. Thomas Long over in San Ramon is Mei Ling's physician and a fan of electronic visits for some things.

"This is more about chronic problems that are ongoing. You might just need a little bit of adjusting of the medication here or there," said Dr. Long.

But not for other things:

"We would not use this, for example, for chest pain. You would not use it for an acute fibrial incident," said Dr. Long.

Dr. Long charges his patients for the electronic visits, not as much as for an office visit, but they're definitely not free.

It is estimated that just 3 percent of family physicians currently offer online visits. But with more insurance companies covering these e-visits, more physicians are expected to get on board.

Dr. Long's health information exchange provider is Relay Health used by John Muir Health, Hill Physicians Medical Group, Alta Bates Medical Group and the University of California San Francisco. All of this online communication has dramatically reduced his need to keep space wasting paper files. Members can make appointments, renew prescriptions and receive test and lab results online at no cost. Dr. Long prescribes the convenience factor for all of his patients, especially parents.

"It's not until kids are tucked in bed that parents wonder if their child should be using this inhaler or that inhaler, and they can send me a question online and all they want is an answer in the next 24 hours perhaps. It sure beats phone tag," said Dr. Long.

For the Wongs, e-visits are just what the doctor ordered.

"I don't just have it for her, I do the same thing for my own doctor as well, and just let him now and say 'by the way this is what's happening, do I need to come in?' And it has worked," said Wong.

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