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On the health beat: Online clinic is finding success

  • Star Tribune
  • February 9, 2013 - 7:24 PM

Virtuwell, a new online medical clinic run by HealthPartners, is taking great care of garden-variety ailments at low costs and high levels of patient satisfaction, according to research published last week.

The online clinic's care was $88 cheaper, on average, than a face-to-face doctor visit to treat pinkeye, sinus infections and other conditions. And it was more successful than most doctors at discouraging patients from taking unnecessary antibiotics.

HealthPartners officials tried to dispel concerns about the emerging online clinic model, including fears that it will raise health care costs by enticing patients who would otherwise recover at home without any consultation. Their study found that nine in 10 Virtuwell patients intended to pursue some form of care before they went online.

Officials with Bloomington-based HealthPartners hastened to point out that their new data apply only to Virtuwell, which uses sophisticated algorithms to determine whether patients can be treated online by its staff of nurse practitioners.

Seems like a marketing shtick for HealthPartners officials to promote research showing that Virtuwell is wildly successful, but that nobody else can copy it. But they said that wasn't the intent, and offered several reasons for applying the data to Virtuwell alone.

One concern is that fly-by-night organizations will use the positive findings to set up online clinics with less accuracy and quality, said Dr. Pat Courneya, Virtuwell's medical director. That could scuttle the online clinic model before it has a chance to have an effect on American health care.

"If we are going to use this," he said, "we need to be thoughtful enough about how we do it so people receive great value from it and aren't harmed by it."

The research compared 4,000 Virtuwell patient visits with 175,000 visits to clinics, urgent care centers or ERs. Results were published in the journal Health Affairs.

Half of the patients who have tried Virtuwell so far had conditions other than the 40 that the online clinic is capable of treating. They weren't charged, but received advice about whether to seek immediate care at an ER or urgent care, or schedule an office visit.

Most patients have been women. The report said they are the "chief medical officers" of families and are likely testing Virtuwell before considering it for spouses or kids.

Patients estimated in the study that using Virtuwell saved them 2.5 hours of time compared to going to a doctor's office or clinic.

"Most people don't think about health care until they have to think about health care," said Virtuwell's Kevin Palattao. "And their preference is that it be simple when they need it."

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