Are Virtual Visits for You?

Imagine a world where you no longer need to see patients in person to conduct an office visit. Sound impossible?

Guess again. Many heath care professionals can now use computers, tablets, and mobile devices to treat patients across town or on the other side of the world. With the widespread adoption of electronic health records (EHRs), physicians can easily communicate with patients, and, in some cases, prescribe treatment without a physical office visit.

As part of a virtual visit, practitioners can chat with patients over the phone or on a face-to-face video call, share lab results through a secure patient portal, highlight abnormal results on the screen, and more. “The process of getting care can be much richer with some of these tools,” says Jon White, MD, director of the Health Information Technology Portfolio at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Before deciding whether to institute virtual visits in your practice, White urges clinicians to take the time to research the viability of this type of service. Here are a few things to consider:

1. Are other practices doing it? Seek out health care professionals in your community or approach members of your professional organization to see whether they’re using virtual visits and, if so, how they are using them, White advises.

2. Explore the technology. Contact your EHR vendor and ask how other practices are using their software to enable virtual visits. Find out what communication tools are available to you.

3. Research state regulations and talk to your licensing board. Some states might have laws about who can provide telehealth and under what conditions. Contact your state licensing board and ask about their policies.

4. Be aware of potential legal pitfalls. Make sure that your malpractice liability insurance policy covers virtual visits, especially across all states. If patients present with ambiguous symptoms, you may want to think twice about making virtual diagnoses. Additionally, it’s best to include a disclaimer about conditions that require immediate medical care, such as chest pain, head injuries, and fractures.

5. Determine your payment structure. Talk to the health plans you’re affiliated with about their payment policies. If you currently have a pay-per-visit model, find out whether you can get reimbursed for virtual visits.

6. Avoid making assumptions. “It would be a mistake to assume that older populations aren’t technologically savvy enough to participate in virtual visits,” White says. Many older patients like using computers and smartphones—and it may be easier for them to stay connected without having to worry about transportation issues associated with physical doctor visits, he explains.

7. Test it out. Start slowly, offer virtual visits to a select number of patients, and ask for their feedback. Most doctors find that their patients like having this kind of access.