Doctor visits without the visits? That is the wave of the future in medicine, according to Vanguard Medical Group (VMG), one of the state’s largest, private primary care providers.
VMG has become the first primary medical care group in the state to offer telemedicine to all of its long-time patients through a new service, Vanguard eCare. While some individual systems, such as RWJ University Hospital and Raritan-based Athene TeleHealth, provide telemedicine to elderly patients, Vanguard is the first primary care group to give all its registered patients the option to contact its physicians for treatment via technology.
Telemedicine allows patients to consult with a doctor and get treatment through their computer, smart phone or tablet. Vanguard’s offering comes two months after Gov. Chris Christie signed a law, S291, validating telemedicine as a legitimate form of medical treatment that can be covered by health insurers.
Vanguard said its process is simple: patients can log onto Vanguard’s eCare service and enter their symptoms and general medical history. A doctor in Vanguard’s network will call the patient, and then respond electronically with a diagnosis. And when appropriate, call in a prescription to the pharmacy of the patient’s choosing.
It is up to the patient’s insurer to decide whether to cover the cost. Vanguard will charge a flat fee of $45 for the televisit, unless the doctor determines that the patient’s condition warrants an in-person visit. In that case, the $45 fee is waived.
Vanguard is also set to open a 2,000-plus square-foot Glen Ridge office on Nov. 1, which will offer telemedicine and specialize in women’s health, preventive, acute and chronic health care.
Vanguard hopes to follow the success of Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest integrated managed care consortium, which has been practicing telemedicine since 2006 on a national basis – with what it claims are remarkably good results. Last year, it reported that it treated a majority of its patients – some 52 percent, or 59 million – via telemedicine.
“I think telemedicine is more than the wave of the future,” Vanguard’s Chief Medical Officer, Thomas McCarrick, MD, said in an interview with NJBIZ. “Right now, this is something very new to us and we’re not used to treating patients this way, so we’re being very careful. But I do think that there will be more and more care delivered by technology, and there will be other ways in which telemedicine and technology will pull together.”
Dr. McCarrick made it clear that the service would only be offered to patients that have a history of treatment with Vanguard, and that VMG will be careful to rely on it only for conditions that do not require an in-office visit. Conditions would include minor flu symptoms, pink eye, cold sores and minor skin conditions. The service could also be used for certain behavioral health issues.
He also emphasized that the chances of misdiagnoses are slim, given that VMG has created strict guidelines on what conditions may be treated via telemedicine.
“In the end, this service helps us take better care of our patients, especially at a time when the industry is evolving towards value-based payment systems,” Dr. McCarrick explained. “This service will reduce fragmentation – if our patients can’t get in touch with us, their next option often is the emergency room or an urgent care unit where they won’t know the doctor who is treating them. So, we think this service enables us to better build a relationship of trust with our patients that will improve the care and outcomes of cases.”
Joe Carr, head of healthcare information technology and chief information officer at the New Jersey Hospitals Association, believes that Vanguard is just the first of many healthcare providers in New Jersey that will offer telemedicine to all of its patients.
“I do think telemedicine is tried and proven in other parts of the country, and it was just a matter of time before New Jersey began to do it,” Carr. “I think it will be successful and popular here and will be a very nice add-on service and increase quality of care.”
Carr added that the service could ultimately decrease hospitalizations. “Telemedicine will provide better value of care….because we’re going to get people in touch with doctors sooner so they won’t have to be hospitalized,” he said.
Carr complimented doctors in New Jersey for embracing the costs of telemedicine because it shows dedication to their patients.
“One of my concerns is that doctors will say, ‘Well, I’ve invested all of this money into telemedicine, but I’m going to be charging a lesser rate for a phone consultation, so how and I going to pay for it?’” he said. “I think it’s great that physicians who look at this will do it because they believe it’s the right thing to do for their patients.”