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The Medical Minute: Virtual care makes house calls

When you’re away from home, instead of looking for an urgent care in an unfamiliar neighborhood or wondering if you should just wait, a virtual care service offers the opportunity to see a doctor from anywhere ― no matter what state you’re in.

“For common illnesses, this is a portable option to access Penn State Health,” said Chris LaCoe, vice president for virtual health at Penn State Health. “The urgent care app offers the ability to enroll, log on, identify your symptoms, select a provider of your choice and receive care, including a prescription if one is necessary, all within minutes.”

With Penn State Health OnDemand, for example, patients use secure video to connect face-to-face with a provider from an online group that provides urgent care 24/7. As many as four people can be connected, enabling family members in other locations to “attend” the appointment should the patient choose to include them.

The wait time to see a provider can be minimal using a virtual health service. Currently, using Penn State Health OnDemand, patients have an average wait time of about six minutes. The average length of a visit is about 10 minutes, LaCoe said. The cost is $69 per visit. Patients who have Highmark insurance and choose to use it will pay $15 or their plan’s co-pay.

Patients take active role

Telehealth visits sometimes require the patient help presenting physical findings, LaCoe said. For instance, if strep throat is suspected, the patient can use a phone video camera to assist the provider in visualizing the throat, or a parent may assist providers with identifying physical findings like a gentle tug on a child’s ear while the doctor observes whether the child winces. That might suggest an ear infection.

Bluetooth-enabled devices can integrate into the platform to access a blood pressure cuff or scale so that patients are able to report biometric data.

Minor ailments, such as sore throats, sinusitis, rashes and ear aches, can be treated easily with a virtual appointment. Others, such as a wound that needs to be stitched or access to lab testing, are best be served with an in-person visit at the discretion of the treating provider, LaCoe said.

COVID-19 advice available

For those exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, the OnDemand COVID-19 screening app continues to connects them with a Penn State Health registered nurse who, at no cost through the app, conducts a screening visit. If additional medical testing or care is warranted, the nurse advises on the next steps to take. The app also provides access to COVID-19 travel testing.

“We continue to be a resource to the community for COVID-19 support and still there when needed,” LaCoe said. “Having the OnDemand app available is very convenient.”

Use is expanding

In addition to urgent care, Penn State Health OnDemand has expanded to mental health counseling and psychiatric care. This is in addition to the multiple programs and conditions, including dermatology, neurology, behavioral health, inflammatory bowel disease, maternal fetal and reproductive medicine and surgical follow-up visits. Penn State Health doctors see patients in urgent, primary and specialty OnDemand programs, LaCoe noted.

The Penn State Health OnDemand app has been downloaded 180,000 times, and there have been 250,000 scheduled virtual visits.

“Digital care is the way of the future,” LaCoe said. “Our goals are to reach more patients and save them time, money, effort, energy and open up accessibility to care from wherever they are and whenever it is convenient to them.”

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The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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