Online Health Clinics and their Potential Application During Pandemics

February 19th, 2015

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By CHHS Extern Lisa Bowen

Online health clinics are the 21st century’s version of a house call. Individuals no longer have to travel to and wait in line at a doctor’s office. Instead, patients can receive a diagnosis, treatment plan, and even prescriptions from the comfort of their homes. Individuals who use online health clinics also decrease the number of people they expose, which could be crucial during an infectious disease outbreak.

According to the Pew Internet Project, in 2012, 72% of internet users used the web to access health information, but healthcare professionals are still the preferred source of health information. Online health clinics have the potential to become very popular through combining professional service with ease of access. Insurance companies have also jumped on board, recognizing online health clinics as a cost-effective way to access healthcare, and have started covering their services.

In general, online health clinics are a convenient alternative used to treat a moderate range of non-life threatening symptoms. However, not all online health clinics are equally accessible. Some clinics such as Virtuwell and NowClinic provide 24/7 service to everyone (although Virtuwell is currently only available in seven states). But, others only provide services to their patients and members. While some clinics still require individuals to have had previous in-person doctor’s visits and only provide second opinions. Despite differences in access, there are numerous benefits to using online health clinics: Delivery of acute care to individuals in rural areas, avoidance of long waits, and low costs to those with and without health insurance.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of online health clinics is the potential to limit the spread of infectious diseases during pandemics. Online health clinics could be a useful tool to help emergency management teams decrease exposure to healthcare workers, and the public, while still allowing doctors to diagnose and provide basic care to sick individuals. Online health clinics have already proved useful for influenza diagnoses, a disease that has caused catastrophic pandemics in the past. There are a limited number of conditions that can be diagnosed solely from virtual interaction with patients. But, even for infectious diseases that require hospitalization, its possible doctors could identify potential cases, and alert appropriate staff to begin infection control procedures in anticipation of the patient’s arrival.

Before the implementation of online health clinics in public health emergencies, there are limitations to consider. Many diseases require laboratory diagnosis and medications Therefore, while the use of online health clinics allows patients to skip the doctor’s office, they would still expose people during their wait at the lab and pharmacy. Numerous online clinics have restricted access, so to be effective during a wide-spread outbreak, more clinics, accessible to everyone, might be required. In addition, there are disparities between age and racial groups in internet use and access. These disparities have been shrinking, but certain sub-groups of the population may be missed if online health clinics were used to manage outbreaks.

In theory, the use of online health clinics during a public health emergency has great potential to alleviate excess capacity at emergency rooms, hospitals, and doctors’ offices. However, further research and resources need to be in place before effectively incorporating them into public health emergency management strategies.

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