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Diagnose your medical problem virtually


December 2015

Just back from a two-week business trip to Africa last July and only days before his sonís wedding, Tim Ehlinger had no time to waste in a doctorís waiting room. He wanted relief from his aching right foot. Now.

In the wee hours of the morning, Ehlinger was checking online for his doctorís office hours when he spotted something interesting: the Virtual Clinic offered by Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin. Virtual Clinic is an online urgent care service that allows a patient to speak to a physician or nurse practitioner via a video feed. Patients first fill out a form to provide important background information and can upload a photo or video that helps the provider see the problem.

"I did it all from my smartphone in my living room at 3-4 a.m.," says Ehlinger, who lives in Wauwatosa. "I couldnít walk. This was an access thing, where the Virtual Clinic made it much easier for me to get the care I needed."

Ehlinger, 57, had his problem diagnosed as a gout-like inflammatory condition that probably was related to dehydration. The doctor ordered medication that Ehlinger picked up at 8 a.m., on his way to work at UW-Milwaukee.

Two nights later, Ehlingerís pain hadnít completely subsided, and he used Virtual Clinic again. A second prescription got him back on his feet, and he was able to dance at his sonís wedding. "It was a very, very positive experience," says Ehlinger. "Itís not just the convenience, but the quality of care."

Launched in March, Virtual Clinic is the only such service based in southeastern Wisconsin, and the only one in the state thatís connected to a health care system, if more care is needed.

Colds and flu, bladder infections and rashes are among the common health concerns that are suited to Virtual Clinic care. Patients pay a flat $49 per call. If the provider determines in the first three minutes of a call that the problem cannot be managed virtually, there is no charge.

In its first seven months, the service was used by approximately 850 patients ó 71 percent of them female, indicating that busy moms likely are taking advantage of it. Fifteen percent of the patients are kids.

"About half of the people say that without Virtual Clinic, they would have gone to a traditional urgent care, and 20 percent would have gone to the emergency department," says Mike Anderes, vice president of digital health for Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network. "So, we do feel we are helping to reduce the overall cost of care by giving people this option."

In another nod to improving the patient experience, most local health systems show their urgent care wait times online, and some allow you to reserve a place in line and receive text reminders or updates.

At Columbia St. Maryís, people also can go online to schedule an emergency department visit.

"It has truly been a win-win," says Gerard Colman, chief operating officer of Aurora Health Care, citing feedback from both patients and care providers.

Even walk-in patients who donít use a smartphone are able to dial back the stress at some urgent cares. On-site kiosks provide information about wait times, allowing the patient to grab a time slot. Itís important to do that before beginning the formal check-in process so you can, for instance, run out for lunch and later return to the clinic.

Urgent care 101

Illness and injuries can come at any time of the day or night. That doesnít always mean a trip to the emergency room, though.

Dr. Laura Marusinec, an urgent care pediatrician at Childrenís Hospital of Wisconsin, helps sort out the options.

ēYour doctorís/hospital website is always open. And you can call your doctorís office or your health insurance carrierís nurse advice line even after business hours. "A lot of people donít even think of calling their doctor," says Marusinec. Best of all, these options wonít cost you a dime.

ēAn urgent care or walk-in clinic can diagnose and treat a long list of common problems, including ear infections, fever, coughs, throat pain, bladder infections, minor burns or cuts, vomiting and diarrhea. "If itís something you could see your doctor for during the business day, you definitely could come to urgent care," explains Marusinec.

ēA hospital emergency department is the place to go for what Marusinec calls "more serious emergencies." That list includes chest pain, difficulty breathing, severe pain, uncontrolled bleeding, severe head pain or injury, and loss of vision.

Before you head out to a clinic or hospital, be sure you have your photo ID, insurance card, credit card (for any co-pays) and all of your medications (including over-the-counter products youíve taken) in their original bottles. Taking your child to get checked out? Be sure to pack a favorite stuffed animal or other comfort item.

ó Cathy Breitenbucher


This story ran in the December 2015 issue of: