Providence offers virtual medical visits for Washington state residents

Need to see a doctor for on-demand care without the wait? There’s an app for that.

Providence Health and Services has launched its Health eXpress program in Washington. For $39, any patient can connect with a medical professional for a one-on-one video consultation over the Internet.

The setup is similar to a Skype call with a doctor or nurse practitioner. The medical professional can answer questions, make a diagnosis and even prescribe medication. Patients without health insurance — or patients whose health plans don’t cover the cost — can pay for the service with a debit or credit card.

“In the digital world, people are doing everything mobile,” said Dr. Todd Czartoski, medical director of telehealth at Providence. “Why wouldn’t you see your doctor on your phone?”

The service is intended for minor conditions such as flu, colds, ear pain, allergies and digestive issues. Patients with more serious illnesses or injuries will be referred to an emergency room. There is no charge for the virtual visit if it doesn’t meet a patient’s needs.

Despite initial concerns about the lack of human touch, this type of virtual care reflects the changing landscape of medicine while cutting congestion at hospitals, Czartoski said.

“We’ve shown it’s safe and effective,” said Czartoski, who has been doing telemedicine for eight years. “We’re not doing brain surgery. We use it to determine who’s sick and who needs to go to the ER”

Kim Tull, a nurse practitioner, said it took some time to adjust to the virtual evaluations, especially when relying on a patient to describe ailments like a skin infection, for example.

“You see a lot of sore throats, upper respiratory infections, ear pain, rashes,” Tull said. “It’s a pretty good variety.”

Nearly 28 percent of visits to Providence emergency rooms could be prevented with the Health eXpress program, said Chris Thomas, communications manager. About 60 percent of virtual consultations result in a prescription for antibiotics or another nonnarcotic medication that patients can pick up at a pharmacy of their choice.

Medical professionals see an average of 10 patients a day on the eXpress program. Patients have ranged in age from one month to 83 years, Thomas said, adding that patients can rate their experience after the consultation.

Convenience is another goal. The average wait time for an appointment is less than four minutes, and the service soon will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Thomas said.

Telehealth is a growing trend in medicine. The American Hospital Association reported that 52 percent of U.S. hospitals used a telehealth service in 2013, with 10 percent getting started. The availability of telehealth also benefits patients in rural areas who lack easy access to medical care because it eliminates the need to travel long distances, according to the AHA.

The global analysis firm IHS reports that 7 million people worldwide will use telehealth services by 2018, with revenues for related devices and services reaching $4.5 billion a year.