Sentara, a large Virginia healthcare system, embraces virtual visits as a way to expand patient access and referral business while preparing for healthcare reform.
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Sentara Healthcare, a large healthcare system with locations across Virginia, has become the latest major healthcare organization to partner with a telehealth firm.
Following on the heels of University of South Florida (USF) Health's arrangement with American Well, Sentara has struck a deal with MDLIVE, a Sunrise, Fla.-based firm, to provide physicians with telephone and online video consults with patients in Virginia and to serve as a referral network for patients who need to be seen in person. In addition, Sentara has bought an equity interest in MDLIVE, and the partnership will serve as a template for MDLIVE to strike similar exclusive deals with providers in other states.
MDLIVE is already available directly to consumers nationwide. The company's business model, however, is based on selling its service to large, self-insured employers. MDLIVE's pitch is that it will save them money on emergency department visits and lost productivity due to employee downtime.
Sentara will provide MDLIVE to its 24,000 employees as a benefit, starting in January. The MDLIVE service incorporating Sentara will launch in October.
Consumers will use MDLIVE to consult directly with a Sentara physician or a doctor in the MDLIVE network. These providers will diagnose low-acuity illnesses, such as allergies, upper respiratory infections, and urinary tract infections, and provide care as appropriate, including prescriptions. If a patient has a more serious condition, the provider will refer the person to an emergency room, an urgent care facility, or a Sentara physician, if one is available in the area.
"This collaboration expands access to care to hundreds of thousands of residents in our core and neighboring markets as well as offers them an alternate delivery option," said Sentara CEO David Bernd in a press release.
Kenneth Krakaur, senior VP of Sentara, told InformationWeek Healthcare that the MDLIVE deal will expand Sentara's service area. But if no Sentara physician is available near a patient who calls into MDLIVE, the patient might be referred to a non-Sentara provider. The healthcare system will also try to persuade community doctors to join the MDLIVE virtual visit panel, he said.
Sentara also expects that MDLIVE will help the healthcare organization cope with the increased demand for services that it anticipates in 2014, when the healthcare reform law expands insurance coverage to 30 million more people nationwide. Telehealth, Kraukaur said, will enable Sentara clinicians "to see more patients with the same resources we have now."
In addition, he pointed out, Sentara views MDLIVE's platform as "a technology that will morph into other care delivery models." Patients could use virtual visits, he said, not only for minor acute problems but also for chronic disease and behavioral healthcare.
MDLIVE CEO Randy Parker said MDLIVE chose to partner with Sentara mainly because of its "history of innovation" and its clout in the Virginia market. The healthcare system's purchase of a "significant" equity stake in MDLIVE merely aligns the two organizations, he said. But he added, "Sentara's involvement in helping to create [a] national blueprint is very significant."
Noting that Sentara will have a seat on MDLIVE's board, he said that one reason for that is to "provide guidance on how we should expand this national network of virtual care, integrated into health systems in every state."
Bernd, in his statement, commented, "With an equity stake in MDLIVE, we become not just another client, but rather a partner focused on paving the way for future advances in virtual healthcare delivery."
Former Apple CEO John Sculley also sits on MDLIVE's board. At the press conference, he described telehealth as a "disruptive" technology that could reduce health costs and give consumers more options. He said he viewed the Sentara partnership as a proof of concept that could help MDLIVE expand nationally.
American Well recently teamed with Tampa-based USF Health to provide telehealth services to residents of The Villages, a large retirement community northwest of Orlando.
Subsequently, American Well and Allscripts announced a partnership that will integrate the telehealth functionality with Allscripts' electronic health record. The system is being piloted at USF Health, and the EHR vendor plans to expand it to selected customers nationwide in January.
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