Story and photos by Joshua Maloni
Mount St. Mary's Hospital announced a new initiative Tuesday that will allow patients to trade doctor's office visits for Web chats. The health center's new "online care" program is a hybrid between a traditional house call and an Internet chat. It's designed to provide faster, more affordable care.
"Our online care practice will allow individuals to have real-time consultations with our trusted health care providers whenever and wherever is most convenient for them, supporting their families' lifestyles, improving the consistency and accessibility of care, and providing opportunities to extend medical services to some of the poor and vulnerable individuals who need them most," said Mount St. Mary's President and CEO Judith A. Maness. "A goal is to eventually offer online care service around the clock."
The "telehealth" group, a cluster of doctors and medical providers, will be available to answer questions, provide guidance and offer solutions via an online chat. Patients log in, view provider details, complete an assessment form, choose a payment option (the service costs $45), select a physician and begin a conversation. Users are given 10 minutes and may add an extra five minutes, if required, at no additional cost.
Medical information can be shared via a HIPAA-compliant, secure network; treatment options are explained; and all results are electronically sent to the patient and readily available for a follow-up or in-person appointment (if necessary).
Patients can choose from a pool of available doctors or schedule an appointment in advance. Existing Mount St. Mary's patients can contact online care coordinator Erin Tweed ([email protected] or 716-298-2383) to set up a free account. Other area residents can visit www.msmonlinecare.org to create a free profile.
"Mount St. Mary's is showing itself to be one of the more innovative and transformative" medical centers, said Michael Vollmer, director of transformational development for Ascension Health. The hospital teamed with his group, the nation's largest Catholic and non-profit health system, and with BlueCross Blue Shield of Western New York to make online care available to patients. "It helps us to put the person at the center of care. ... It puts them in charge."
Cindy Eberl, director of physician outreach for BlueCross/Blue Shield, said the goal is "to give people the tools they need to maintain and improve their health."
Dr. Roy Schoenberg, CEO of American Well Systems - the outfit that created the online user interface - said it's like having your doctor's office in your own medical cabinet. He said chats would further deepen the interaction between patient and doctor.
"This is very exciting; it's very cool; it's very accessible," Schoenberg said.
Maness said the per-person cost of online care is less than an emergency room visit and about as much as a regular doctor's appointment. As of now, insurance providers do not cover the service.
Dr. Philip Sauvageau, a primary care doctor with Mount St. Mary's, is one of the online care providers. He said the appeal for him is offering treatment to patients without asking them to wait in an office - or even to leave their living room.
"I'm always concerned about what's convenient for the patient," Sauvageau said.
He noted the service is especially useful for those who might not have a lot of extra time or interest in making a medical appointment the traditional way.
"There's some conditions that might otherwise be ignored," Sauvageau said.
Participating doctors will inform the online care network of their schedules and when they can connect with patients.
"We pick a block of time that we know we'll be available," Sauvageau said.
The online care service hours are 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
Mount St. Mary's cautions online care is not practical for all people or for all ailments. Maness said it is not intended to replace a traditional in-office visit. The common uses include: sinusitis, urinary tract infection, rashes, allergies, child health questions, lab result reviews, sleep troubles and cold- and flu-like symptoms.
A kiosk is available for use within the hospital for those who do not have access to a computer.