Like media, shopping, social conversations and banking, healthcare is joining the ranks of industries moving online. Patients and physicians have grown accustomed to technology-driven healthcare changes in recent years such electronic medical records but more recently a new array of options have become available in this region – including electronic healthcare visits.

Electronic healthcare visits are no longer the fare of science fiction films or television. They are available in the Twin Ports and beyond through both St. Luke’s and Essentia Health.

Launched in late 2018, St. Luke’s eCare program is an “online service that allows you to receive care for minor health concerns without having to visit a clinic,” according to information on the St. Luke’s website. The online medical visits, which can be completed with a computer, tablet or phone, are aimed at patients who need assessment or treatment for a number of minor healthcare concerns such as cold/flu symptoms, rashes, allergies, urinary tract infections, earaches as well as others. 

The St. Luke’s program was launched primarily to address patient convenience, said eCare Clinic Manager Tara Swenson. The eCare program, for example, allows a working parent to get a fast diagnosis and treatment plan to deal with many common, non-emergency healthcare concerns – all without much disruption to their daily routine. 

But a low price could prove attractive to patients with high deductible insurance plans or no insurance coverage at all. There is a $30 flat fee rate charged for each visit, payable by credit card or debit card. The eCare Clinic doesn’t bill its services to insurance companies, however, patients may seek their own reimbursements if their healthcare plan provides such coverage.

The online visit begins with a questionnaire that generally takes about 15 minutes to complete.

Photos also may be uploaded with the questionnaire to assess ailments such as skin rashes. The eCare clinic is staffed from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days per week and patients can expect a diagnosis and treatment plan within one hour after completing the questionnaire during regular hours. Patients may fill out the questionnaire 24/7 but won’t receive a response until 8 a.m. the next day if the submission is after hours. If a diagnosis is not received within one hour during normal clinic hours, the patient is not charged for the visit.

“The average wait time is about 10 minutes,” said Swenson, adding that the eCare clinic is staffed by nurse practitioners, physician assistants or medical doctors.

Executives at St. Luke’s see the new care initiative as an extension of low-cost, convenient healthcare services already offered here. About 14 years ago, St. Luke’s opened its first Q Care clinic in Cub Foods. The clinic provides services for patients seeking fast, convenient medical attention for minor conditions. Q Care proved to be a success. A second location was opened at the Mount Royal Medical Clinic on Woodland Ave. in 2016 and a third Q Care clinic opened on the Lake Superior College campus last fall. The Q Care Clinics are face-to-face visits but generally offer little wait time and no appointment is necessary.

Essentia Health also offers online healthcare through its E-Visit program. This online healthcare option also treats a variety of minor health concerns, offers one-hour diagnosis/treatment plans or the visit is free and a $30 flat rate fee. Essentia’s E-Visit is available 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Attempts to reach Essentia’s E-Visit staff for comment were unsuccessful.

Both online platforms are hosted by Minneapolis-based ZIPNOSIS, which is described on its website as a multi-modal virtual care company. It serves customers throughout the country. The company claims its products and services yield results with 89 percent of virtual care users reporting that they would recommend the service to a friend. ZIPNOSIS also asserts that 25 to 35 percent of patients who use a system’s virtual care will become patients of that healthcare organization within one year.

Healthcare experts envision online care as a sub-field of medicine that will continue to grow in the future. And, there may be benefits beyond convenience and cost.

In the June 2019 edition of Mayo Clinic publication Proceedings, an editorial penned by Elizabeth Habermann suggests that as many as 20 percent of face-to-face visits could be shifted to e-visits. While that does pose risks to clinic visit numbers, the net result, she said, could reduce or eliminate the current shortage in primary care physicians.

In 2019, St. Luke’s treated approximately 200 patients its first full year. It’s a number that Swenson expects to grow as people become more aware of the service. And, as greater percentages of the population grow more accustomed to online medical services, she envisions additional e-services to be added, such as web-cams, which would put patient and provider in a face-to-face discussion – albeit remotely.