Opinion and Editorials

EDITORIAL: Online medical consults worth trying

March 10, 2012

Like it or not—and most of the time we like it—technology has changed the world we live in. Think about how different everything was before television, cell phones and Google. Remember when computers were bigger than a breadbox? Remember breadboxes?

Given the inevitability of such change, we’re stumped by Indiana physicians’ reluctance to embrace the latest health care innovation: virtual house calls via Skype-style online chats with patients.

As J.K. Wall reported in IBJ last week, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield is asking the state’s Medical Licensing Board to relax a 2003 rule that requires doctors to conduct a physical examination before treating a patient or prescribing medicine.

A lot has changed since 2003. Among the innovations society has made mainstream since then: Apple’s iTunes music store, video games like the Nintendo Wii that mimic user’s movements and online video sites Hulu and YouTube.

Patients can schedule medical appointments online, health records are available at the touch of a mouse, and prescription medicine is shipped directly to patients’ doors. But a trip to the doctor means just that, and most consider their visits successful if the time spent in the waiting room is brief enough to avoid catching whatever other patients have.

Insurers like Anthem hail the technological alternative as a way to expand access to physicians, particularly at odd hours or in remote areas—which could lower health care costs if patients choose an online office visit instead of a costly visit to the emergency room.

But physicians in Indiana have been slow to embrace the idea of online consultations, which they worry would short-change patients and could be abused. Most doctors also eschew e-mail communication with patients, saying it is prone to miscommunication.

Nationally, only 7 percent of U.S. physicians were using online tools to consult with patients last year. But London-based research firm Technavio predicts telemedicine will grow 19 percent per year globally through 2014.

Indeed, Anthem’s parent company, Indianapolis-based WellPoint Inc., is working to launch online health care in its 14 states, rolling out the first service soon in California and Colorado. Rival UnitedHealth already offers online care in 22 states including Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio.

Once again Indiana is an island of old-school thinking amid the high seas of progress.

Sure, many questions remain to be answered about online consultations, and it may be that patients still prefer to flip through year-old copies of Good Housekeeping while dodging germs. But it’s worth a shot.

Our state and its residents need to stop holding tight to the way things were and embrace change. Whether we’re talking about mass transit, smoking in public, gay marriage or medical technology, the fact remains: the world is moving around us, and we can’t afford to sit by and watch.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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