Online visits: Cheaper, as effective as traditional care

Web-based care cost up to $124 less than an urgent care center visit

Online primary care clinics cost significantly less than traditional care and can be just as effective for basic conditions, according to a new study in Health Affairs.

The study echoes findings from a JAMA Internal Medicine study published last month.

  • From the Advisory Board: Watch this video to understand can hospitals leverage online technologies to improve care quality, workflow, and physician relations.

For the study, Minneapolis-based HealthPartners examined 40,000 cases of care provided through its Virtuwell online clinic. The Virtuwell clinic is open 24 hours per day and provides care for 40 basic conditions, including:

  • Acute sinusitis;
  • Urinary tract infections; and
  • Conjunctivitis.

Each online appointment generally takes fewer than 30 minutes. During the appointment, the patient first answers automated questions about his or her symptoms, medical history, and medications.

A nurse practitioner then reviews the responses and recommends a treatment plan or sends an electronic prescription. Patients also may request to speak to the nurse practitioner over the phone.

The study found that the online clinic reduced the average cost per case by $88.03. The average cost of the online care was $40 per case, which is:

  • $20 to $30 less than the cost of convenience clinics;
  • $80 to $142 less than the cost of physician office visits;
  • $82 to $124 less than the cost of urgent care center visits; and
  • $159 to $469 less than the cost of ED care.

The study also found that the online clinic saved each patient an average of 2.5 hours, after accounting for travel time, waiting time, and other delays.

According to the researchers, the care provided through the online clinic was as effective as care provided through traditional settings. They wrote that the Virtuwell clinic "had an episode resolution rate—that is, no face-to-face follow-up care was required—of 89% to 95%, a rate similar to those of convenience clinics" (Versel, InformationWeek, 2/5).

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