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Virtual visits open new doors for medical care in Ohio

Only a small percentage of people are taking advantage of telemedicine opportunities.
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COLUMBUS — With just a few swipes of a finger, many Ohioans are able to access medical attention from a doctor through their smartphones. But only a small percentage of people are taking advantage of telemedicine opportunities.

These virtual visits allow patients to connect with a health care provider via smartphone, tablet or personal computer 24/7, 365 days a year. Pat Keran, vice president for product and innovation with United HealthCare in Ohio, said telemedicine is most widely used for minor health issues.

"You're not going to use it for a broken arm, and it really is the non-emergency medical conditions. Allergies, the flu, colds, pink eye, fevers and rashes are really the primary sweet spot for a virtual visit," Keran said.

While surveys show nearly 40 percent of Americans would consider using a low-cost telemedicine service, nationwide telehealth adoption is currently as low as 10 percent. Ohio's latest budget included a provision requiring private insurance companies to cover telemedicine visits.

Besides convenience, Keran said virtual visits save patients money. He noted traditional medical care can get expensive very quickly.

"A primary-care visit may be around $115, or an emergency-room visit could be upwards of $1,200 per visit," he said. "From a virtual visit side of things, costs today are less than $50."

United HealthCare cited research showing 3 in 4 patients said a care concern was resolved during their first virtual visit, and the net savings per virtual visit exceeded $120. Keran noted it's still very important for patients to keep their regular doctor in the loop.

"You want to check with and always be connected with your primary doctor; that's first and foremost," he said. "We don't want to break the relationship, but rather give you the capability to visit with a doctor when you absolutely need it and you can't visit with your own doctor."

A majority of U.S. hospitals use video or other technology to connect patients and care providers. And some Medicare Advantage plans offer coverage for telemedicine, without out-of-pocket costs in some cases. Keran urged Ohioans to check with their medical provider, employer or health insurance plan to learn about telemedicine options.