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Telemedicine is changing the health care industry

(Via Flickr/Rosemary)

In recent years, advancing technology has changed the way we go about our daily lives. From reading books on tablet devices to video chatting with a friend from afar, technology has ushered in new eras in our way of life.

But, how is technology shaping the world of health care? Health care experts joined “St. Louis on the Air" host Don Marsh to discuss how telemedicine- virtual patient-doctor interaction- is changing the industry.

Dr. Tom Hale, executive medical director of Mercy Virtual in St. Louis, explained that Mercy plans to introduce The Virtual Care Center, a 120,000-square-foot center that will focus on providing telemedical support to patients. The center will service both hospital and at-home patients through virtual doctor interactions. For example, doctors will monitor intensive care unit patients across all Mercy hospitals through remote radiology, neurology and pathology teams, and provide online doctors for patients in rural areas that lack adequate access to health care providers.

“Mercy has 60 percent of its patients in rural areas,” Hale said. “All those areas don’t have the specialists that they need and many don’t have primary care. Telemedicine is one the ways that we can bring that care to the communities.”

Telemedicine gives patients the opportunity to visit an online doctor for non-life threatening health concerns, and cut back on overcrowded emergency rooms. Online visits are generally less costly than a doctor’s office or urgent care, and can help patients avoid delays with their primary care provider.

Karen Scott, senior director of product and innovation for UnitedHealthcare, said that UHC plans to cover telemedicine doctor visits. “Many of our large commercial clients as well as general consumers have had a growing interest in being able to access care virtually,” Scott said, “and we felt at this point that this was an opportune time for [covering online health services].”

Scott explained that the average cost of an online doctor visit is about $50.

Adam Craddock, who used LiveHealth Online, explained that his experience of using a virtual doctor proved to be beneficial. After feeling ill for some time, Craddock made an appointment to his primary doctor, but was unable to get an appointment in a timely manner.

Craddock downloaded and signed up on the LiveHealth online app through his smartphone and chose a doctor. The visit required explaining his medical history and symptoms through a video chat session. Once a diagnosis was determined, the doctor phoned-in a prescription to a pharmacy of Craddock’s choice.

Dr. Peter Lucas, psychiatrist and director of mental health for HealthLinkNow, started working as a telemedicine doctor two years ago and visits patients online.  

“I think that telemedicine lends itself well to psychiatry because you have the face-to-face encounter with the patient, even though it’s not in person,” he explained. “I find that I can connect with people quite readily.”

Dr. Jay Parkinson, co-founder and chief medical officer of Sherpaa, prefers asynchronous communication through services like email versus video chat sessions. Sherpaa’s patients can email messages and photos (if applicable) explaining their symptoms and avoid face-to-face communication, which usually takes a little while longer, he said. 

“Email allows [doctors] to free up time slots,” Parkinson said. “You don’t really have to focus on communicating in 15-minute time slots; you can communicate whenever you want.”

“One always has to remember [an online doctor] is not something to replace doctors or nurses; this is something to augment their care- to give them extra eyes, and extra virtual hands,” said Dr. Tom Hale.

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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