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The Doctor’s In…Your Computer

Patients may soon get cheap, fast, and effective health care right from their desks, according to recent experiments with virtual doctor visits. A new report by Virtuwell clinic, a digital office of nurse practitioners created in Minnesota more than two years ago, finds that virtual visits were on average $88 cheaper than in-person visits and saved on average about 2.5 hours of patients’ time. The NYT has more:

The service works like this: Patients go to and answer questions about their symptoms and medical history, any allergies and medications they are taking….

A certified nurse practitioner then reviews the questionnaire and writes a treatment plan—usually within 30 minutes. The patient is notified by text or e-mail when the plan is ready. If a prescription is needed, it is sent electronically to the pharmacy of the patient’s choice.

So far Virtuwell has handled about 40,000 cases, so its success is big news. Virtual visits are an example of how technology can enable new care distribution systems to bring down the skyrocketing cost of health care. No single innovation will be a panacea, and every new development has its own costs and complications. But we need to make the most of potential breakthroughs like this. The status quo is unsustainable.

Seizing opportunities like these is going to mean changing some laws and regulations. To harness the potential of virtual visits, for example, we may need to rethink regulations that require health professionals to be in the same state as the patient, or to see the patient in person at least once before a digital visit. Ultimately, we should move toward a national, even global, market for some types of health care, where doctors in Delhi treat patients in Dallas.

The future of the health care industry may be borderless consultations, all through a laptop.


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