Tacoma’s CHI Franciscan Health serves 2,500 patients during first year of virtual care

For Gig Harbor’s Linda Swensen, connecting with a doctor from her living room saves her time and gas money, and spares everyone else from her germs.

Swensen was one of 2,500 people who saw a medical care provider during the first year of CHI Franciscan Health’s Virtual Urgent Care program, which allows patients to receive round-the-clock care over the phone or the Internet. The Tacoma-based health system estimates patients using the program avoided more than $600,000 in healthcare costs and 4,200 hours that otherwise would have been spent in a waiting room.

Franciscan contracts with Carena Inc., a Seattle-based telemedicine company, which has 16 medical care providers who handle virtual visits from across the country.

Franciscan’s virtual care program began in the fall of 2013. Patients pay $35 per visit, which is close to what an insured person would pay to see a family doctor – and much less than the cost of an emergency room visit.

“I would have paid a $30 copay at the doctor’s office,” Swensen said. “Plus I didn’t have to leave my house and spend money on gas and all of that. I think it’s affordable.”

Franciscan is on the leading edge of virtual care. Global analysis firm IHS estimates that about 350,000 people in the world used telehealth services in 2013, a figure expected to hit 7 million by 2018. Revenue also should explode, according to IHS: from $440 million last year to $4.5 billion in 2018.

“As our health care system becomes more consumer-driven, we’re proud to be among those taking the lead in giving patients more control over how, when and where they access care,” said Dr. Mark Adams, Franciscan’s chief medical officer, in a news release.

MultiCare Health System, also based in Tacoma, provides virtual care in some specialty practices such as obstetrics, genetic counseling and diabetes education. It plans to begin virtual visits for primary care and other disciplines early next year, spokeswoman Marce Edwards said.