NORFOLK, VA - Sentara Healthcare, which operates more than 100 sites in Virginia, has partnered with Sunrise, Fla.-based MDLIVE to offer patients virtual medical consultations with its network of physicians. As part of the deal, Sentara will take an equity stake in the privately held telehealth firm.
The capabilities will be available starting in October, officials say. Sentara employees and members of certain Optima Health insurance plans will also receive the service as an additional benefit over the course of 2013.
Sentara officials say deployment of the secure, real-time platform will increase its patient capacity as more than one million uninsured Virginia residents gain access to health insurance in 2014 thanks to the Affordable Care Act.
"Healthcare is changing due to a variety of factors, including advances in digital technology, physician shortages, increased access to insurance and high deductible plans, decreased reimbursement and patient population management needs," said Sentara CEO David Bernd. "This collaboration expands access to care to hundreds of thousands of residents in our core and neighboring markets as well as offers them an alternate delivery option."
He added that Sentara's equity stake in MDLIVE means the health system becomes "not just another client, but rather a partner focused on paving the way for future advances in virtual healthcare delivery."
Patients will be able to use the MDLIVE virtual consult platform to consult directly with a licensed Sentara or partner physician who can diagnose low-acuity illnesses such as allergies or a urinary tract infection and provide care as appropriate, including prescriptions, say Sentara officials.
Patients with more serious conditions will be directed to the nearest immediate care facility as appropriate. Should a prescription be necessary, MDLIVE's connection to more than 60,000 pharmacies enables them to send a prescription electronically to the pharmacy of choice.
"The marriage of MDLIVE's state-of-the-art virtual consult platform with high quality care provided by Sentara Healthcare's established regional network of physicians, hospitals and other facilities is unprecedented in its scope and reach," said Randy Parker, CEO of MDLIVE.
Former Apple CEO John Sculley, who sits on the MDLIVE board, added that, "at a transformational moment in healthcare driven by the demand for quality care and access and the capabilities of new technologies," the Sentara deal "sets the stage for expanding access to new modes of healthcare delivery that can benefit patients, the healthcare industry and the nation."
In a conference call on Aug. 20, Sentara Senior Vice President Ken Krakaur said the deal represents a key step toward one of the health system's missions: "looking for new ways to expand how we deliver care to our patients," the goal of "getting the right care at the right time, [from the] right provider in the right venue."
Parker added that big changes are afoot in healthcare. With so many millions more having access to healthcare, there are projected to be big increases in wait times for physicians. ER costs are skyrocketing, even where "54 percent of emergency room visits could have been resolved through a telehealth-type encounter."
He says MDLIVE sees this as a chance to use Sentara - a longtime leader in the innovative deployment of health IT - as a model, to provide patients with "the lowest-cost quality care inside the health system."
While there's been a lot of innovation in medical technology in recent years, said Sculley, "there is now an opportunity for there to be a focus on the delivery of healthcare services."
Sentara is a hospital system "that has great innovation and the critical mass in size to be able to touch a significant, large number" of people, he said. "We believe this will be quite disruptive in terms of reducing cost to the patient, giving the consumer a greater role in selecting their own healthcare alternatives and expanding the capabilities of the integrated healthcare network that Sentara has built."
It's hoped, he added, that this will serve as "a proof point that will enable us, working together with Sentara, to be able to expand this network across the country, adding other hospital systems to it."