Its 2 a.m., and a nettlesome bout of what you think might be gastritis is making sleep impossible. What to do?
You could tough it out, but that could mean several more hours of misery. You could search out the rare urgent care clinic that's open after midnight, or, if youre really desperate or worried, you can go to the nearest emergency room and hope that you receive prompt but expensive attention.
Beginning this week, Tacoma-based health provider Franciscan Health System is offering yet another and, perhaps more attractive, alternative: virtual urgent care.
Its not just the convenience that makes the health-care service appealing. Its also the cost -- $35 per virtual visit total cost.
With the virtual urgent care system now being offered to the general public by Franciscan, those in medical distress can consult a board-certified physician or nurse practitioner by phone or via video chat on a smartphone, tablet or personal computer.
That medical professional will assess your symptoms, offer advice or prescribe medications to get you on the way back to normal.
That advice might be to seek a hands-on examination at a late hours medical facility, but experience has shown, said Ralph Derrickson, president of Seattle-based Carena Inc., that the vast majority of patient issues can be successfully handled over the phone or via video chat.
Carena specializes in virtual health care. The provider, which will operate the system under contract with Franciscan, has handled hundreds of virtual health care calls for Franciscans own employees with a high rate of satisfaction, said the company president.
"We tested the Franciscan Virtual Urgent Care with our own employees before expanding it to the public, so we know this model of care delivery works, said Franciscan Chief Operating Officer Dr. Cliff Robertson.
As our health-care system evolves, patients have more control over their health care dollars. We are innovating to provide care more efficiently, conveniently and at a lower cost, he said.
Robertson said Franciscan considered the possibility that the new service could cannibalize the health systems regular walk-in business, but the health-care provider wanted to make the system not only less costly but also more efficient.
Franciscan operates a huge network of clinics, urgent care facilities and hospitals in the South Sound. Those include Tacomas St. Joseph Medical Center, Federal Ways St. Frances Hospital, Enumclaws St. Elizabeth Hospital, Lakewoods St. Clare Hospital, Gig Harbors St. Anthony Hospital, Bremertons Harrison Medical Center and Buriens Highline Medical Center.
Franciscan's Tacoma competitor, MultiCare Health System, said Monday it offers virtual care to some patients, but in a more limited fashion.
MultiCare spokeswoman Marce Edwards said MultiCare patients can connect to their doctors via their electronic health records via e-mails. Some MultiCare specialists offer virtual visits as part of a continuing care program. The health system's obstetricians, for instance, offer pregnant women a combination of face-to-face and virtual checkups as part of a prenatal program.
With the virtual care system, the large costs of buildings, medical equipment and non-medical personnel is nearly eliminated, resulting in charges to patients that are a fraction of even their co-pays for urgent care and emergency department fees.
The $35 charge will be paid by the patient. Insurance companies and third-party payers have been slow to sign on, said Derrickson.
The virtual care system is available to anyone in Franciscans service area, not just Franciscans existing patients or employees.
Derrickson said insurance companies oftentimes are slow to adopt new methods, but he expects theyll see the virtue in the virtual care system.
The virtual care network is not meant to be a substitute for clinics or emergency departments, said Robertson, but rather a complement to them.
The system might ultimately generate more follow-on business for Franciscan if patients are referred to Franciscan physicians or facilities for continuing care.
Franciscans and Carenas virtual care network is one of the first of its size or ambition in the nation, and both health-care providers believe it will be a growing trend once its advantages are evident.
More information on the virtual urgent care system is available at www.franciscancarenow.org.
John Gillie: 253-597-8663