Higher education

University of Iowa launches state's first virtual health clinic

'This will be a bit of a game changer'

Kristy Walker, UIHC Director of Clinical Applications, describes sinus pain over a video connection with a nurse practit
Kristy Walker, UIHC Director of Clinical Applications, describes sinus pain over a video connection with a nurse practitioner during a demonstration for media of the new UIeCare virtual clinic at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City on Thursday, May 28, 2015. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — As a pediatric kidney specialist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Patrick Brophy has seen a lot of patients from around the state who wish they didn’t have to travel so far for care.

But Brophy believes they won’t always have to.

UI Health Care moved one step closer Thursday to providing comprehensive virtual health care by launching the state’s first Internet-based clinic for minor illnesses and injuries.

Although the new clinic is not suitable for specialty patients — like those needing kidney dialysis — Brophy said “UIeCare,” available online at uiecare.com, is perfect for more common aches and pains like congestion, cough, bug bites, rash, flu-like symptoms, sore throat and vomiting.

“I think this will be a bit of a game changer,” he said.

UIeCare can be accessed by computer, tablet or smartphone any day at any time by anyone in Iowa — whether a patient of UIHC or not. As part of the login process, users must provide identifying information and answer screening questions to ensure virtual health care is appropriate. Based on the answers, patients could be referred to the emergency room or a primary care provider instead.

Users who are approved could experience wait times between five and 30 minutes but, once they connect, patients sit virtually face-to-face with one of seven UI-credentialed health care providers — trained in family medicine and licensed in Iowa — to discuss their symptoms. The physicians are certified to diagnose patients and prescribe medicine.

UIHC is contracting with Seattle-based Carena Inc. to provide the service and none of the virtual health care providers are in Iowa — yet.

UIHC intends to add its own providers to the list of those virtually available in the near future, according to Brophy. The system already is integrated with the UI’s medical record provider, meaning results of virtual visits are logged and sent to primary care providers. If users don’t have regular providers, the system offers to help find them.

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Due to varying state laws regulating e-medicine, UIeCare patients must be in Iowa to log in, Brophy said.

The system requires an Internet connection and a web camera, and each visit costs $50 — revenue that goes back to UIHC. Patients insured by Medicare and Medicaid are not eligible for virtual health care visits due to federal regulations, and the university does not bill insurance providers for the cost.

But, Brophy said, patients get receipts they can submit for possible insurance coverage or for reimbursement through health savings or flexible spending accounts.

The system incorporates security measures aimed at protecting the confidentiality of health care information.

National patient satisfaction rates for Carena’s virtual clinic experience stand at 96 percent. But the system isn’t without kinks, as seen Thursday when UIHC officials tried to demonstrate.

Working out the kinks

The website timed out several times when Kristy Walker, director of UIHC clinical applications, tried to log in. Once she connected, Walker was given a 30 minute wait time. A provider met with her sooner, but Walker was unable to get the audio to work. Using a cellphone in conjunction with her computer monitor, Walker listed symptoms, although the screen froze several times and the doctor was unable to see where she was pointing when describing pain.

Despite the glitches, the provider managed to assess Walker’s illness — which she made up for demonstration purposes — and offered recommendations.

Walker and Brophy both stressed the importance of high-speed Internet in the virtual clinic’s success and mentioned proposed legislation aimed at expanding broadband service to more Iowans.

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“If the Internet connection is not high enough quality, the visit cannot take place,” Brophy said.

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