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Highmark Telehealth Pilot Goal: Cut ER Visits

Highmark, a large Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurer in western Pennsylvania, offers some members option to consult with doctor via Internet when they are experiencing a minor illness.

Telemedicine Tools That Are Transforming Healthcare
Telemedicine Tools That Are Transforming Healthcare
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Highmark Inc., one of the largest Blue health insurers in the nation, has launched a telehealth service for 10,000 of its members allowing them to conduct long-distance virtual visits over the Internet with a physician using Teledoc.

Officials at Highmark, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield licensee in western Pennsylvania, said they are hoping the pilot reduces the need for members to visit hospital emergency rooms with minor illnesses such as the common cold, coughs, scrapes, bruises, strep throat, and nausea.

Instead, Highmark members can call a U.S.-based, board-certified physician via phone or arrange for a video consultation online through the Teladoc website. Upon requesting a consultation, members receive a call back from a doctor licensed in their state within an average of 22 minutes. There is no time limit for the consultation, which costs $38.

In order to use the service, members register online and create a Teladoc account. They then complete a medical history disclosure form in order to populate an electronic health record (EHR) to store their information. Patients can update their EHR at their convenience.

[ For other telehealth advances, read Boston Scientific Taps Telecoms For Telehealth Connectivity. ]

Teladoc's physicians have access to the member's EHR at the time of their consultation. During the visit, the physician will review a member's medical history and any prior consultations, as well as update the EHR with details of the current consultation. If medically appropriate, physicians will prescribe medication that can be sent to the member's pharmacy via phone, fax, or electronically. With patient approval, the Teladoc system also can send a record of the consultation to the patient's primary care physician to ensure continuity of care.

In an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare, Anthony Porretta, Highmark's director of business innovation and development, said the pilot is designed to test how interested consumers are in using telehealth technology.

"Through this telehealth initiative Highmark will offer an additional access point for our members to access healthcare that they would not otherwise have," Porretta said. "Additionally, access to these doctors online after hours will prevent unnecessary visits to the emergency room or urgent care facilities, thus reducing healthcare costs. Convenience is also a benefit for members, who would normally have to take time off from work to visit a physician's practice."

Officials at both companies said the service is designed for patients to use for a non-urgent consultation, when they are on vacation or a business trip, when a doctor is not available, or for minor pediatric care.

According to Jason Gorevic, Teladoc's chief executive officer, the Teladoc platform, is a proprietary, encrypted point-to-point video connection between the member and a Teladoc physician. Plans are to expand connectivity to mobile devices later this year.

"As an extension of the videoconferencing capability, Teladoc is currently developing a mobile application, slated for release later in 2012, that will enable both the patient and the physician to conduct video consultations directly from their iPad or iPhone. Additional mobile platforms will be supported in subsequent releases," Gorevic told InformationWeek Healthcare.

Gorevic also said that following the pilot, Highmark will be expanding telehealth as a covered benefit to approximately 500,000 members in the third quarter of 2012. During this expansion, Highmark intends to invite its network of physicians to participate in the Teladoc program.

The 2012 InformationWeek Healthcare IT Priorities Survey finds that grabbing federal incentive dollars and meeting pay-for-performance mandates are the top issues facing IT execs. Find out more in the new, all-digital Time To Deliver issue of InformationWeek Healthcare. (Free registration required.)

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