The next time you're dragging with a fever or miserable with pink eye, you can see the doctor without leaving your bedroom. All it takes is a smart phone or a home computer.
UNC Health Care and WakeMed Health & Hospitals said this week they are offering urgent care services online.
UNC Urgent Care 24/7 is a round-the-clock video linkup that allows you to talk with on-call doctors about sore throats, coughs, diarrhea, nausea, rashes, bug bites and other minor symptoms. The Chapel-Hill-based health care system, which operates 13 hospitals in the state, announced the service on Tuesday, the day after WakeMed Health & Hospitals, launched its online urgent care service, eVisit.
WakeMed's telemedicine service is for five common symptoms — coughs, diarrhea, sinus problems, headaches and urinary tract infections. It does not include a video component, however, but allows doctors and patients to communicate online in writing and send written descriptions of problems.
Telemedicine has been slow to gain traction in the Triangle. Duke University Health System is not offering virtual urgent cares at this time, but the Durham system offers video follow-up visits after routine surgeries — such as removals of tonsils and gall bladders — and plans to expand to other procedures. Duke's Telestroke Network has been providing stroke specialist video consultations to patients in hospitals in southern Virginia and eastern North Carolina since 2013.
In other parts of the state, Vidant Health in Eastern North Carolina has been offering an online video-enabled service since January, while Cary-based RelyMD, an independent service that provides virtual urgent care services around the state, debuted in 2015. UNC and Vidant are both offering their online service through RelyMD's competitor, MDLIVE, a Florida company that supplies the North Carolina-licensed doctors and the technology to operate virtual care clinics.
RelyMD is the largest virtual urgent care service in the state. RelyMD was founded by Wake Emergency Physicians and employs more than 150 emergency doctors, all based in North Carolina. It provides virtual urgent care services to a number of organizations, including Piedmont Health Services, which operates health care clinics in 14 counties, as well as HQ Raleigh, a collaborative workspace for entrepreneurs. The company has added 15 clients since January, with some companies providing virtual urgent care just for their own employees.
A less expensive option
For someone with a minor injury in need of a quick prescription, telemedicine can be many times cheaper than visiting a hospital emergency room, and a lot faster, too.
"This is a more affordable alternative to the ER, and it's more accessible," said UNC Health Care spokesman Alan Wolf.
UNC's service costs $49 out-of-pocket, unless health insurance pays for it. By comparison, the cost of a visit to an REX Express Cares clinic for an uninsured person starts at about $100, Wolf said. UNC tested the virtual clinic approach for a year on its 34,000 health care system employees, and some can use UNC Urgent Care 24/7 at no cost on one of UNC's health insurance plans.
WakeMed's eVisits service costs $35 per virtual visit, and it's not yet covered by health insurance because it was just unveiled, spokeswoman Kristin Kelly said. It's not available to everyone, but only to wakeMed patients from the past 18 months who have used WakeMed's hospital, outpatient sites, urgent cares or WakeMed Physician Practice offices. The doctors on eVisit are WakeMed urgent care physicians.
Both services require patients to pre-register online and UNC's is also accessible through an app.
Virtual urgent care is not a substitute for the real thing. It's good only for non-emergency conditions — such as allergies, coughs, fevers, rashes, vomiting and insect bites — for which a doctor can electronically prescribe antibiotics, antihistamines and other such medications. For more serious conditions that require controlled substances, x-rays, splints and bandages, you'll need to go to a clinic.
Both WakeMed and UNC say they will not charge patients who turn to the virtual urgent care but are told they need to visit a real clinic or even a hospital emergency department.
"If a patient does a virtual visit but needs to go to the ED, the virtual visit charge will be refunded," Wolf said.