Telemedicine services in Pittsburgh say a lot about the future of health care | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Telemedicine services in Pittsburgh say a lot about the future of health care

“This is truly a patient-centric system instead of a system-centric system.”


Going to the doctor can be a pain. That’s certainly not a slight on medical professionals; having a doctor that you know and trust is an invaluable tool to staying healthy. But what about those days when you know you should see a doctor, but finding the time in your schedule is just impossible?

These days, many people are doing what they’d do in most any other situation — they’re going online. Telemedicine, consulting with a medical professional electronically, is a rapidly growing health-care tool. According to a survey conducted by Rock Health, a telemedicine research and investment firm, the use of telemedicine, particularly video consultations, grew exponentially between 2015 and 2016. In 2016, video-based telemedicine saw a 22 percent increase in users, up from seven percent in 2015. Many states have also passed laws requiring that telemedicine services be covered under insurance plans. Pennsylvania state Sen. Elder Vogel, of Beaver County, introduced a similar bill last month, and it is expected to be taken up this year in both legislative chambers.

Kim Jacobs, vice president of consumer innovation at the UPMC Health Plan, knows the value that telemedicine provides. The company began offering an email-based system in 2013, which had no face-to-face contact between doctor and patient, called UPMC AnywhereCare. In November 2016, the program was retooled to allow patients to have a direct consultation via smartphone or other wireless device. Patients could interact with a doctor, physician’s assistant or certified registered nurse practitioner through an encrypted online app 24 hours a day.

“At first, there was no mobile app at that time, but rather a patient portal on the UPMC website. They would put in their information … and it would send an encrypted email to a nurse practitioner,” Jacobs says. “That medical professional would then send back a care plan within 30 minutes. It was very convenient, very fast and could be accessed from anywhere. The problem was you were tied to your computer. 

“That was where we started, but it wasn’t the future.”

Jacobs says the new AnywhereCare program is growing rapidly and is popular among its patients. In the three years that the old system was in place, he says, there were 10,500 patient visits. In the seven months since the mobile program was launched, the program has already treated about 3,500 patients. “Telemedicine is in vogue,” Jacobs says. “There really has been a groundswell of interest for these services, and ours offers you a service that is easy to use [and] backed by UPMC’s world-class medical staff.”

Jacobs says the service is mainly used to treat non-emergency situations like rashes, pink eye, urinary-tract infections or upper-respiratory issues. If you have a rash, for example, you just move your phone’s video camera over the area for the doctor to examine it. The process, Jacobs says, takes roughly nine minutes and prescriptions, if needed, are sent directly to the pharmacy. Since its inception, the program has an approval rating of 4.8 out of 5. The service is covered by insurance for patients in the UPMC Health Plan, and others pay $49 out of pocket.

Jacobs says about 58 percent of AnywhereCare patients are age 47 and under. The surprising number, says Jacobs, is the number of patients over the age of 65 who use the service. Nine percent of users fall in that range, and Jacobs says the number has been climbing in the past seven months. “What we’re seeing is the myth of seniors not using technology is fading,” he says.

Another benefit of UPMC’s program is that there’s no risk in trying out the service if you’re not sure if your condition can be handled remotely. “If the service is not completed,” Jacobs says, “there’s no charge.” So, if a parent has a sick child at 3 a.m., they can log on to the app and consult with a medical professional. 

“They’re seeing someone eyeball to eyeball who can assess the situation and either diagnose and handle the problem, or advise that the person needs to go to an urgent-care center or the emergency room. Having a doctor triage a patient and advise on the proper care makes people feel better about the situation.”

It’s not just health systems and large service providers getting on board the telemedicine train. Earlier this year, an app was launched called MyHouseCall. The service not only provides telemedicine services, but also old-fashioned house calls from its team of doctors and nurse practitioners. The company is based in Pittsburgh and was founded and developed by brothers Michael and Eric Cole, along with doctors Stephen Ritz and Chris Fleissner.

Ritz says the app has seen “slow, steady growth” since its inception and has similar patient demographics as the UPMC plan. Patients range from millennials who are used to getting services when they wanted to young mothers who are strapped for time or unable to easily get their child to a doctor’s offers, as well as some older patients. Ritz says older patients who have difficulty leaving their home and don’t have family nearby are taking full advantage of the service, especially the home visits.

“Things like this, I think, illustrate the value of the app,” Ritz says. “But one of the best parts is that relative to an urgent-care or emergency-room visit, we can offer these services at a lower cost to the patient.”

MyHouseCall charges $39 for an exam via video chat and $99 for a house call. The service is available 12 hours a day beginning at 9 a.m. And while the company is not currently accepting insurance, Ritz says that could change in the future. Patients are provided information so they can submit the cost to their insurance company for reimbursement. “But right now, the simplicity of the system helps us keep costs down.” The service can also provide other home services like breathing treatments, urine tests and splints for minor orthopedic injuries at additional costs.

“There are a number of medical situations that aren’t conducive to the video-chat function,” Ritz says. “There are more complicated issues like abdominal pain or a severe sore throat that need a hands-on evaluation. These services allow us to provide high-quality medical services and hopefully prevent unnecessary hospitalizations and emergency-room visits by managing a condition before it reaches the point where the patient would require more extensive and expensive treatments.”

“We really think that this is the future,” he says. “This is truly a patient-centric system instead of a system-centric system. The current system is geared toward the needs, resources and interests of the provider. Telemedicine focuses on the needs and interests of the patients.”