5 Ways Virtual Primary Care is Different than Traditional Primary Care
February 8, 2022
Dr. Eric Bricker
Virtual primary care occurs via video or phone visits
Virtual primary care allows patients to have a video or phone visit with a doctor or other healthcare provider. Those visits can be performed via a smartphone, laptop, desktop computer or even a traditional home phone. Specifically on a smartphone, patients can access virtual primary care via a dedicated app, through a website on their phone’s internet browser or through a regular phone call.
Patients can speak with a doctor about their symptoms, perform a self-guided physical exam and share photos of conditions such as a rash.
Virtual primary care saves patients time and money
Virtual Primary Care is much easier for patients to use than traditional in-person primary care. Patients do not need to travel to a doctor’s office saving gas, parking, bus, subway expenses. Patients do not need to sit and wait in a waiting room or an exam room. They do not need to take time off from work or worry about arranging or paying for childcare.
Virtual primary care can be offered to many employer groups at $0 out-of-pocket cost. Employers can offer virtual primary care outside of an employee’s health insurance like an onsite clinic, near-site clinic or direct primary care practice. It is not mandatory to bill the health insurance carrier or the employer’s self-funded plan to deliver care. Employees can have care without claims.
As such, if an employer’s health insurance plan design has copays for office visits, the organization does not have to change their insurance or plan design to deliver virtual primary care to employees at zero out-of-pocket cost. The virtual primary care services can simply function outside of the plan and be paid for in a fixed-fee manner rather than billing the plan for claims.
Virtual primary care provides access to independent doctors
Most doctors are now employees of hospital systems or corporations. In fact, 70% of doctors work for hospitals, insurance companies or private equity firms. Conversely, 30% of doctors are independent.
Independent doctors have an advantage in that they are free to do what is best for the patient without pressures from management to potentially change the way they treat patients.
For example, an independent doctor can refer a patient to whatever specialist, physical therapist, hospital or facility that would be best for their patient. However, doctors that work for a hospital system may be required to refer their patients within the same hospital system. What if a better specialist is outside of that hospital system? What if there is a scan or test of equal or even higher quality at half the cost at another hospital system?
Virtual primary care gives patients access to independent doctors no matter where they live. Virtual primary care doctors can have medical licenses in multiple states to virtually see patients across America. Virtual primary care gives patients options for care that they might not otherwise have with traditional in-person care.
Virtual primary care can provide 24/7 access to a doctor
Many traditional in-person primary care practices do not provide access to a doctor on nights, weekends and holidays. Often patients must use an in-person urgent care center or emergency room if they need care outside of typical office hours. There are 8,760 hours a year. There are about 2,000 typical office hours in a year. That means patients only have access to traditional in-person doctors 23% of the time in a year.
Virtual primary care doctors often work in a virtual group practice that provides 24/7 access to doctors in addition to scheduled visits during the week. The weekend, night or holiday doctor may not be a person’s own primary care physician, but they share a unified electronic medical record with the virtual primary care doctor so each can see the findings and prescriptions of the other.
In fact, 24/7 virtual urgent care access is a fantastic way to drive utilization of virtual primary care. A follow up virtual primary care appointment can be scheduled after an urgent sick visit 1) to check and see if the patient’s symptoms have resolved, 2) address important chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension and 3) coordinate preventive tests and screenings such as referring to an imaging center for a mammogram or a gastroenterologist for a screening colonoscopy.
Virtual primary care makes accessing the right specialist easier
There are over 50 distinct types of medical specialists from cardiologists to dermatologists to orthopedists. With traditional in-person primary care, a patient has two suboptimal choices:
1) In a PPO, they can skip the primary care doctor and try to find a specialist that suits their needs. This is a problem. What specialist is the right one? There are even subspecialties within specialties. Within cardiologists, there are electrophysiologists, interventional cardiologists, heart failure specialists and preventive cardiologists. Even within those specialists, who is good? Who takes your insurance? Who can see you in the next 2 weeks? The odds of a layperson executing all these steps correctly are extremely low.
2) A patient who chooses to see an in-person primary care doctor first must go through all the inconvenient steps described above of driving to the office, parking, waiting in a waiting room, missing work, arranging for childcare and paying for a visit. After the patient does all that, the primary care doctor may simply say that the health problem is beyond their scope (e.g., abnormal mole that needs to be biopsied by a dermatologist) and refer them to a specialist.
With virtual primary care, patients can fix the above two problems by receiving an educated referral from the virtual primary care doctor to the correct specialist based on their symptoms not having to find a specialist on their own. Also, the hassle of in-person care that only slows down the process of seeing a specialist is skipped.
Virtual primary care improves the #1 priority of all care: Access. For a doctor to help a patient, they need to interact with the patient. Virtual primary care makes that happen.