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By Taylor Knopf
As snowstorms and the flu virus hit North Carolina earlier this year, officials at Vidant Health thought it would be a good time to roll out their new virtual doctor visits.
Though the launch was a little earlier than planned, Anissa Davenport, Vidant’s chief strategy development and marketing officer, said they didn’t want patients traveling through the ice and snow unnecessarily to see a physician.
“It seems like we always get sick at the most inopportune times, not Monday through Friday from 8 to 5,” Davenport said.
Telemedicine is seen as one of the top solutions for improving access to medical care to the most remote areas of North Carolina. State lawmakers are interested in telehealth as a way to compensate for the lack of physicians and specialists in rural areas. But issues such as poor broadband access and reimbursement still need to be worked out.
Nonetheless, since the January launch, about a thousand people have created a VidantNow account. Physicians have conducted 104 virtual visits using the new telehealth platform.
“When you feel bad, the last thing you want to do is have to be in the car and wait in a waiting room,” Davenport said. “We really feel like this connectivity is a great value.”
Vidant employee Laura Maready, 46, agreed. She had been self-treating a lingering poison ivy rash when she finally decided to call her primary care doctor. The office was booked and Maready didn’t want to miss half a day of work to drive to the nearest urgent care. So she decided to try out VidantNow.
She downloaded the app on her phone and answered the basic questions about height, weight, age, medications, allergies, etc. Maready uploaded some photos she’d taken of her rash and then chose a provider out of the list of immediately available physicians.
The doctor asked a few questions and wrote her a prescription that she picked up at a pharmacy the same day.
“I was elated and proud of myself that I had made that step to try the virtual care,” she said. “I immediately told several people about how great the process was. The fact that I didn’t have to get in my car and drive. And the actual visit with the provider, signing up and downloading the app only took 30 minutes.”
VidantNow visits are $49. There is no insurance coverage option. Davenport emphasized that this service is for convenient and urgent care.
Telemedicine is not ideal for every condition, and true emergencies should be treated at an emergency department. Some conditions that are appropriate for a virtual care include acne, allergies, flu, fever, insect bites, sore throat, urinary problems or vomiting.
During a virtual visit, a doctor may decide a patient should be seen in person. The physician can also make a referral to a specialist. If a patient doesn’t have a primary care physician, there’s a team to help connect them to one, Davenport said.
And with the patient’s permission, an electronic record of the virtual visit can be transferred to their primary care doctor.
‘An evolving science’
Joe Pye, medical director of health informatics at Vidant, is in the process of getting credentialed and will soon see patients on VidantNow. In addition to verifying medical licensure and training, Pye said there is an additional program to train physicians on the nuances of providing virtual care.
“That’s not always intuitive to a lot of folks and maybe not covered in medical school,” he said.
He gave the example of the mechanics of talking to someone on a screen and making sure everyone is visible.
“Sometimes in a face-to-face environment, things tend to be more natural and intuitive. But go on the phone, it becomes much less so,” Pye said. “There are certain extra things you have to do on a screen or phone to make sure you connect.”
Pye said he believes the physicians at Vidant are embracing the new technology but in a conservative manner.
“I think we approach new technologies with caution,” Pye said. “Our goal is to reach patients and provide excellent care. This technology is appealing, especially in a health system that takes six hours to drive across.
“This is an evolving science. There is a lot of good literature out there. There is a good standard of care that’s being developed to help guide us and keep us safe and appropriate,” he added.
Pye said he enjoys being able to offer immediate care to patients across eastern North Carolina.
“The feedback from our patients has been phenomenal. I like the fact that we are able to do things that make our patients happier while keeping them safe at the same time.”