Guest column

4 tips for Houstonians tuning into telemedicine from local health care exec

Telemedicine is a growing resources for Houstonians, but here's what you need to know about tapping into digital health care. Ian Hooton/Getty Images

When health issues crop up, people often have to decide where best to seek medical attention, with urgent care and the emergency room being potential destinations. But for more and more Houston residents, their smartphone is now the preferred way to see and talk to a doctor.

Telemedicine visits, also known as virtual care, typically last less than 20 minutes, often cost less than $50 and enable people to connect 24/7 with a health care provider via a smartphone, tablet or personal computer to help diagnose and treat certain medical conditions. While nearly 40 percent of Americans said they are interested in using telemedicine in the future to access care a separate J.D. Power survey found nationwide telehealth adoption is currently as low as 10 percent.

Closing this gap by expanding the use of virtual care may prove beneficial, as this technology can provide consumers improved convenience and lower costs. In fact, 68 percent of patients rated their telemedicine visit a "nine" or "10" on a 10-point satisfaction scale; 74 percent had their care concern resolved during the first visit; and net savings per virtual visit exceeded $120.

To help people take advantage of this emerging technology, here are four tips to consider:

Identify Available Resources
Among people who had not used telemedicine, the J.D. Power survey found that 37 percent said they did not know if they had access to this technology. To find telemedicine resources that may be available to you, check with your hospital or care provider group, health insurance plan or employer. In fact, nearly nine out of 10 employers are offering telemedicine to their employees, while 76 percent of U.S. hospitals already connect patients and care providers using video or other technology. For Medicare beneficiaries, some Medicare Advantage plans are offering coverage for telemedicine and resources to access virtual care, in some cases at no out-of-pocket cost.

For Houston residents, most people enrolled in UnitedHealthcare employer-sponsored plans have coverage for virtual physician visits, giving plan participants secure, online access to a physician via mobile phone, tablet or computer 24 hours a day. Several Houston-area hospitals and provider groups have also introduced virtual care resources, and changes in state regulations in 2017 helped spur additional national telemedicine companies to start serving the market.

Understand Appropriate Uses
While telemedicine may have the potential to help treat other health issues, the technology is most widely used to address minor and nonemergency medical conditions, including allergies, flu, pinkeye, and rashes. Telemedicine is also emerging as a helpful resource for behavioral health services, making it more convenient for people to access this type of care. If needed, doctors can prescribe medications and send prescriptions to local pharmacies for pickup. While people who experience a significant or serious medical issue should go to the emergency room (ER), it is important to recognize that about 25 percent of ER visits typically involve conditions that could appropriately be addressed with a virtual visit.

Keep Your Primary Care Physician
Telemedicine may be ideal for treating minor and nonemergency medical issues, but it is important for people to maintain a relationship with a primary care physician for wellness checkups, diagnostics, management of long-term conditions and some urgent and non-urgent treatments. As telemedicine programs evolve, people may have the option to use virtual visits to access primary care and maintain an on-going relationship with their preferred doctor.

Other Connected Devices
Consumers can consider other connected devices to help access care and potentially improve their health, ranging from smartwatches and activity trackers to continuous blood glucose monitors and connected asthma inhalers. These connected devices – and others like them – may provide important real-time information and offer people actionable feedback about their behavior patterns, while helping make it possible for care providers to counsel patients to more effectively follow recommended treatments.

Making telemedicine more widely available – and used – may be especially important for people with chronic conditions and the 20 percent of the U.S. population that lives in rural areas where access to health care, particularly specialty care, is often lacking. By considering these tips, people may make the most of telemedicine resources as part of their journey toward managing their health.

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Dave Milich is the CEO of UnitedHealthcare of Texas.

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Building Houston

 
 

As the new UH medical school welcomes its second class, it's also planning for a new facility to support low-cost care. Photo via UH.edu

The University of Houston College of Medicine has announced it will open a low-cost health care facility thanks to a $1 million gift from The Cullen Trust for Health Care.

UHCOM will open the direct primary care clinic on the campus of Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital, and, according to a news release from UH, it's only just the beginning of a network of clinics focused on treating those without health insurance.

"A direct primary care practice will add value to the local health care ecosystem by tackling one of the most pressing problems of our city: the lack of a comprehensive primary care system for the uninsured," says UH President Renu Khator in the release. "The Cullen Trust for Health Care shares our commitment to improving the overall health and health care of the population of Greater Houston and we are grateful for their support."

The direct primary care, or DPC, model is an alternative to insurance-based and fee-based care and eliminates third party payers. Instead, patients pay a monthly membership to receive primary care services — including telehealth, basic office procedures, at-cost laboratory testing, and access to medications at reduced prices. The clinic will offer same-day or next-day appointments as a guarantee and be staffed by faculty physicians and UH health professions students.

"The UH College of Medicine wants to restore primary care as the foundation of health care. We have developed a model with strong incentives to innovate the delivery of primary care designed to improve quality and more effectively control the cost of care," says Dr. Stephen Spann, founding dean of the UH College of Medicine, in the release. "We are building our model upon the four pillars of access, population health, social determinants of health and trusting relationships. In this framework, the physician is accountable for the health of their member panel and will demonstrate long-term cost and quality outcomes."

Dr. Stephen Spann is the founding dean of the UH College of Medicine. Photo via UH.edu

Founded in 2020, UHCOM's brief existence has been supported by generous donors – including a foundational $50 million gift as well as an endowment. This latest funding is from The Cullen Trust for Health Care — established in 1978 as an organization that grants financial assistance to institutions providing health care services in the Greater Houston area.

"The Cullen Trust for Health Care is proud to support this pilot endeavoring to bring a new form of patient-centered primary care to Houston's underserved communities. We are hopeful that the new UH College of Medicine direct primary care clinic will proactively engage patients to increase utilization and improve continuity of care," says Cullen Geiselman, chairman of the board for The Cullen Trust for Health Care.

This week, the school also announced its second-ever class of students. The UHCOM class of 2025 includes 30 students selected out of about 6,000 applicants. According to a news release, more than half of the second cohort received a $100,000 four-year scholarship. The future doctors will be celebrated with a White Coat Ceremony on Saturday, July 31, at the Hilton University of Houston.

More than half — 67 percent — of the new class is female and 60 percent of the group are Black or Hispanic. Sixty-three percent represent low socioeconomic status (as defined by Texas Medical Dental Schools Application Services).

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