Intermountain Healthcare, a health delivery network based in Salt Lake City, is testing virtual health care visits, in which patients log on and chat with a doctor from a remote location via iPhone or laptop.
The doctor can examine a wound, rash, or bruise electronically and refer a patient to an online specialist if necessary, or advise them to head to an urgent care center for stitches or further follow-up.
"We want to ramp it up to 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Marc Probst, Intermountain chief information officer, told me in an interview. "We're trying to reduce unnecessary emergency room visits" as well as time spent sitting in a doctor's waiting room.
Intermountain's 4,000 employees are now testing the system, Probst said, but the queueing system needs to be perfected to make sure patients aren't waiting too long online to see a doctor.
Tech experts at Intermountain and elsewhere are also working on developing tools that patients can attach to their computers or smartphones, such as stethoscopes, otoscopes (to check ears, throats, and noses), or doppler devices to listen to a fetal heartbeat, to reduce in-office visits.