'E-visits' let you get a virtual house call from your doctor 

Jill Overmyer

If you're suffering from a minor illness, you might wonder whether it's worth it to make an appointment, travel to your doctor's office and sit in a waiting room, all to get a few minutes of face time with a health care provider.

Virtual doctor visits, or "e-visits," can provide a convenient alternative. E-visits let you get medical advice and, in some cases, prescriptions over a secure Internet connection. While not for emergencies, e-visits can be an expedient way to treat minor ailments.

How e-visits work

An e-visit is essentially a virtual exchange of medical information with a health care provider. After logging into your health care provider's system and entering some requisite personal information, e-visit patients complete a comprehensive series of questions about their symptoms.

The patient's medical history then is reviewed by a qualified health care professional to ensure the symptoms are not related to a serious condition. Current medications and allergies also are checked before any treatment is prescribed, according to HealthPartners, a Minnesota health insurance company that operates an e-visit system called virtuwell. Patients who require lab testing or further review are referred to their primary doctors. The health care provider serving you has a specified window to respond to your e-visit, and all results are filed in your medical record.

Who can use e-visits?

Practitioners who offer e-visits don't usually make them available to those who've never had an in-person appointment, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Although some treat children, they might have age limits. For example, Allina Hospitals and Clinics (a network of hospitals in Minnesota and Wisconsin that uses an e-visit system called MyChart) does not give medical advice through e-visits for children under age 12.

The benefits of e-visits

According to a California Healthcare Foundation survey, 78 percent of patients want the ability to interact with their doctors online. E-visits have a number of benefits for patients, including:

  • Convenience. Dozens of simple or common illnesses can be accurately diagnosed through a virtual doctor visit. Virtuwell, for example, lists sinus and bladder infections, pinkeye, the flu and minor skin conditions.
  • Flexibility. Online visits let health care providers serve patients when most offices are closed, giving patients greater flexibility in getting medical advice. MyChart promises a response within one business day.
  • Personalization. E-visits are not entirely automated, but are overseen by health care professionals with access to the patient's medical history.

Insurance coverage for e-visits

Major insurance providers, such as CIGNA and Aetna, reimburse health care professionals who engage in e-visits, according to the Healthcare Financial Management Organization. Virtual doctor visits covered by health insurance work the same way that regular doctor visits do. Allina Hospitals and Clinics, for example, charges a $35 co-pay and then submits a claim to the patient's insurance provider.