story title image

How virtual visits have become a new standard in accessible health care

Originally published in The Tennessean, January 2024

I’m often called upon to travel to meet with employers who provide BlueCross coverage to their staff. Not too long ago, I’d traveled to Memphis for just such a meeting. But after arriving at my hotel the night before, I started experiencing upper respiratory symptoms, cough and body aches. 

These were not the kind of symptoms to wave away and hope would clear up by morning, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic and the proximity to others I’d soon find myself.

Being in a new town, I couldn’t call up my primary care provider’s office and request they fit me in. I didn’t even have a thermometer on me. But as a physician, I knew my symptoms weren’t urgent enough to require a trip to a nearby hospital’s emergency room. 

Fortunately, I was able to make a virtual care appointment right then and there. Within minutes, I was on my smartphone, face to face with, and describing my symptoms to, a doctor  in a safe and secure fashion. This provider prescribed Tamiflu, called it in to the pharmacy around the corner from my hotel, and advised that I rest and not risk making others sick. The next morning, I felt well enough to call into my meeting. 

I share this story to illustrate the convenience and quality of virtual care. In my situation, it was a game changer.

Without that telehealth option, I probably would’ve visited an urgent care center, experienced a long wait, and had a much more expensive bill.

Urgent care would’ve consumed much more of my time than the virtual call itself — time that I needed to rest and let my prescription do the trick. 

Addressing misconceptions about telehealth

While virtual care has become increasingly widespread in recent years, there remains some skepticism about its effectiveness. Part of the BlueCross approach to lifting this stigma has been: 

  • partnering with a virtual care service
  • integrating it with our BCBSTN mobile app, and
  • sharing with our members the common symptoms — cold, flu and sinus infection symptoms like coughing, sneezing, runny nose, fever, sore throat, headache and body aches — where a virtual visit is an ideal starting point.

Our goal is to encourage our members not only to schedule a virtual care visit when the need arises, but to use our app to help establish an ongoing relationship with a primary care physician (PCP) if they don’t have one.

This involves scheduling preventive care visits where the physician or their team can order lab work, screenings and X-rays as needed for a particular member’s encounter needs. Those of course happen outside of a member’s home, but the results are typically available within 48 hours and can be reviewed in another virtual visit.  

Virtual care is also ideal for many mental health care needs. Access is easier — you don’t have to drive, park, or sit in a waiting room. It’s all done in the privacy of your home. With BlueCross, our virtual service provider allows for mental health counseling and prescription medication as deemed appropriate by the treating provider. 

Benefits of being proactive

[tweetit]For virtual care to truly be effective, we recommend our members take some steps on the front end before feeling sick. Download the BCBSTN app and create an account for you and your family. That way, if you or your child is sick, you don’t have to take 10-15 minutes for pre-registration. Our turnaround times have consistently been between 5-15 minutes for a member to be on the phone or on screen with a physician. Also, have your preferred pharmacy’s address and contact information handy to ensure ease of calling in a prescription.  

It’s important to remember that virtual care is not seeking to take the place of urgent or emergency care; during a virtual visit, a physician can still recommend these services as necessary.

Virtual care is focused on improving access to care by removing barriers like transportation, busy schedules, cost  —and as we move forward, stigma. 

About Dr. Ian Hamilton, Medical Director of Account Management

A photo of the authorDr. Hamilton leads a team in providing clinical consultation and expertise to internal and external stakeholders on population health, quality of care, HEDIS, medical policy, care coordination, and health care costs.

Related Content