Eye to eye from afar

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What household hasn’t had this conversation?

“Does this look like pink eye to you?

“Um, maybe. Do we have any of those drops left?”

“No.”

“You’ll have to go to your doctor, then, to find out for sure.”

And there it is, noted Amber Ratcliffe — the unexpected medical event that can wreak havoc with the day’s schedule and put a bite in the wallet.

For those folks and plenty of others, CareSimple launched earlier this month week for use by anyone who signs up and pays the monthly membership fee of $35 per family.

“That’s for two adults and an unlimited number of kids for about as much as a Netflix account,” said Ratcliffe, vice president of marketing for Seattle-based Carena, the company behind CareSimple.

Individuals pay $25 per month and all members get unlimited $5 visits, plus access to online health and wellness information. Non-members pay $85 per visit.

The concept has been available to large employers — think Costco and Microsoft — since 2009.

The physicians who had the vision to start Carena in 2000 as a house call service to big companies think of CareSimple as a “the doctor will Skype you now,” ’round-the-clock service providing webcam and phone doctor visits, said Ratcliffe.

Development of that began when the company started analyzing patient complaints and realizing how much could be diagnosed by webcam, she explained.

The company is active in Washington and California — those two states are particularly friendly to virtual health care, the company said — with plans for expansion. Now about 18 credentialed providers work in Washington state, all from specially equipped home offices that standardize the visits.

It’s a close-knit group that meets regularly to discuss protocol and patient treatment. And it’s real medicine, said Ben Greene, a family practice physician and medical director of CareSimple. Doctors and nurse practitioners communicate with the patient for many of the same things that drive patients into a physical office. “Bladder infections, sinus infections, fever, sore throat, tummy aches and pink eye. At the end of the day, we’re only going to treat you if we feel we can manage the condition.”

CareSimple does not replace the need for a primary care provider, Greene emphasized. Transcripts of the telemedicine visits are sent to the patient and the patient’s regular doctor, and the CareSimple staff will communicate with him or her.

The virtual providers also call in nearly every sort of prescription, save for narcotics and other controlled substances.

The service is typically not covered by health insurance, and the company priced things with that in mind, Ratcliffe said. “Doctor’s don’t get paid for doing phone medicine, which is why they want you to come into the office. We’re tried to price this low enough so it’s not worth trying to file a claim.”

Too, people save gas and time by not having to leave their own homes for medical care, especially helpful in rural settings where there can be a paucity of health providers, she said. “We can look at an injury and check a burn.”

Most CareSimple business takes place when traditional medical places have closed for the day and the average virtual visit lasts 20 minutes, Greene noted, nearly the triple the seven minutes most common when doctors are going from appointment to appointment.

“And we don’t charge for the visit if we have to say it is too complex. But so many times Dr. Mom just needs a second opinion,” Ratcliffe said. “People just don’t know and they are looking for a professional opinion. ‘Does it need stitches?’ We say, ‘Yeah, you can take care of that at home and here’s how.’”

Hospital systems are looking at the virtual medicine idea, eager to see how they can use the technology in their own systems, she added. “Catholic Health Initiatives is our largest investor.”

Carena seeks out the right candidates for the job, Green pointed out. “When we interview providers, we look for are they comfortable with this technology, are they good communicators? It’s not right for everyone.”

For those who fill the bill, the lifestyle offered by a virtual practice is highly rewarding, however, allowing for more family time and more face-to-face patient time, he said.

Almost all users have reported their issue was resolved with the service, with about half saying they were able to avoid a trip to the emergency room. The costs are always up front, very important at a time people are paying more and more out of pocket, Ratcliffe said.

For more information go to www.caresimple.com.

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