NEW TREND IN BUSINESS: The virtual doctor is in at area offices

Dr. Dale Block, a family physician with Premier Family Care of Mason. Photo/Randy Tucker
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Dr. Dale Block, a family physician with Premier Family Care of Mason. Photo/Randy Tucker

Area doctor offices have joined a growing number of health systems revolutionizing the way people visit their doctors by allowing consumers to connect with their doctors through a smart phone, tablet or computer.

Doctors at Premier HealthNet, one of the largest primary care practices in southwest Ohio, said the “E-Visit” service the practice launched last fall is rapidly growing in popularity and has already served more than 1,000 patients at 46 offices.

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The service offers convenient access to care for a limited number of common conditions — such as back pain, sinus problems, and fatigue — while at the same time reducing pricier visits to doctors’ offices and urgent care clinics.

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Premier charges a flat rate of $35 for an E-Visit in which patients communicate concerns and disease symptoms to their doctors by answering questions from a drop-down menu on the practices’ online Epic MyChart portal. The service differs from so-called telemedicine, where patients and providers communicate with each other via video.

The information shared during an E-Visit is sent to physician, medical assistant or nurse practitioner, who uses the information, along with the patient’s electronic medical record, to make a diagnosis and order recommended care and prescriptions through the same portal.

“We have had an overwhelmingly positive response,” said Dr. Dale Block, a family physician with Premier Family Care of Mason, which was one of two Premier pilot practices to begin utilizing E-Visits last spring. “We’ve really worked hard about educating our patients about obtaining care electronically. We’re trying to use all the different ways and means to really make it patient-friendly.”

The push toward virtual doctor visits comes at a time when many primary care doctors find themselves over-booked and patients are struggling with unpredictable work schedules and family demands.

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One of the biggest advantages of E-Visits is the time-savings, according to Block, who said his office advises patients that it may take up to 24 hours to get a response to their online query, but the turnaround time is typically much shorter.

“If our practices gets an E-Visit during working hours…we can usually respond in about 15 minutes,” according to Block, who said his practices receives a handful of E-Visits daily. “It’s small right now, but it’s catching on.”

Still, not all E-Visits are accepted. People with more serious conditions who attempt E-Visits are generally referred to their doctor for a face-to-face visit or even hospital emergency rooms when needed.