This article appears in the April 2014 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.
Spurred by interest from insurance companies and employers, physicians are ramping up their ability to make an increasing number of patient encounters online or over the phone.
"We need to meet consumers where they are, knowing that often consumers aren't able to get to the doctor during the workday or on the weekends, and they end up going to the emergency room or the urgent care room for inappropriate use of care, and so we have a service that truly gets to the consumer 24 hours, seven days a week, 365 days of the year, and it's a real doctor every single time," says Matt Marek, vice president of product and marketing at 2.6-million-member BlueCross and BlueShield of Minnesota.
"We believe this is the next generation of retail care that we saw at Target and MinuteClinic years ago, where we're truly trying to serve the consumer beyond normal doctor hours," Marek says.
Using technology from American Well, BCBS offers high-definition video consultation between its members and a physician with an average wait time of less than two minutes, Marek says. The service never costs more than $45, and patients are reimbursed by the health plan like a claim. Some employers are even considering moving to a $0 copay to encourage employees to use online care.
Although BCBS of Minnesota has offered this service since 2010, use of the service is now growing 200% per year, and BCBS expects that growth to accelerate this year. BCBS of Minnesota is also expanding the coverage it offers to employers in its service area. After initially serving only employees in Minnesota, BCBS of Minnesota's Online Care Anywhere service now permits employees of those companies to utilize the service in 46 states and the District of Columbia, Marek says. This makes Online Care Anywhere the fastest-growing service in BCBS of Minnesota's set of service offerings.
Spurring the move are liberalized laws and policies throughout the United States that now permit online teleconsultations. "There are many states today that now allow online care or telemedicine to exist, where three, four years ago we never thought we would get as far as we have," Marek says.