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No Time To See The Doctor? Try A Virtual Visit

Patients looking for convenient medical appointments can now see UCLA Health System doctors using their cell phones, computers or tablets.

It’s part of an ongoing effort at UCLA and elsewhere to extend alternatives to the in-person doctor visit to busy consumers outside rural areas.

The doctors are available through LiveHealth Online, an already-existing service designed for business travelers and parents who may not have the time to show up for an appointment.

“There is a need for the entire health care industry to be a lot more responsive to what patients want,” said Samuel Skootsky, chief medical officer of the UCLA Faculty Practice Group and Medical Group. “One way to do that is to have multiple channels of access to doctors.”

The traditional medical appointment “is not convenient for everybody,” Skootsky said.

The visits are a covered benefit for certain Anthem Blue Cross consumers, including those who purchased a plan through the state’s exchange, Covered California, and many who have plans through their employers. The general public pays $49 per visit, while in-person medical visits typically cost double that – or more.

While telemedicine isn’t new, it has traditionally been used to expand medical access to rural areas with doctor shortages or to connect primary care doctors with specialists. This represents a new way for telemedicine to give patients more control over their health care, said John Jesser, vice president of provider engagement strategy for Anthem Blue Cross.

“It saves them one of the most important things, which is their time,” Jesser said. “The number one benefit really is convenience.”

It also allows patients who get sick over the weekend to avoid going to an urgent care center or an emergency room, he said.

LiveHealth Online is offered 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The UCLA doctors may not always be available, but other board-certified physicians are.

Jesser said adding UCLA physicians to the other physicians on LiveHealth Online will make patients new to online medicine more comfortable.

“It allows consumers to see a brand that they recognize,” he said.

Jesser said the doctors use their judgment to decide whether they can gather enough information to treat the patient or if they need to recommend the patient be seen face-to-face.

The appointments are designed for non-emergency conditions like sore throats, coughs or rashes. If patients need X-rays or lab work or have complex medical conditions, they will  need to make an in-person visit.

Ingrid Antall, a family practice doctor in Thousand Oaks, Calif., who is already part of LiveHealth’s network, said she can often assess what is wrong with patients with colds and minor infections by talking to them and seeing them over the phone or computer.

Antall said she relies heavily on patients’ explanation of their symptoms and guides them through a self-exam, sometimes using flashlights or cell phone lights. “It causes me to be a little more creative,” she said.

She acknowledged that the visits have limitations. “If they really need to be seen in person, I have no hesitation in sending them,” she said.