Rite Aid rolls out in-store virtual doctor visits

For $45, Rite Aid customers can talk for 10 minutes to a doctor

One of the nation's leading drug store chains, Rite Aid, has begun rolling out online physician chat rooms in its stores, allowing customers to participate in virtual face-to-face consultations prior to purchases.

Rite Aid today said it worked with healthcare provider OptumHealth to introduce its NowClinic Online Care services, which are currently available at pharmacies in the Detroit area.

The NowClinic offers Rite Aid customers real-time access to medical information and resources from doctors and OptumHealth nurses. Rite Aid said it is the first to provide a virtual clinic in a retail pharmacy setting.

Currently, conversations with nurses are free and a 10-minute consultation with a doctor is $45.

"We're planning for success. In Detroit, our relationship with Rite Aid is great and we are encouraged by the favorable consumer response to NowClinic in Rite Aid stores so far. We hope by the end of the calendar year, we'll have better insight on how we can apply this in other markets," said Chris Stidman, senior vice president of Network Solutions for OptumHealth.

While Rite Aid is the first to offer in-store kiosks, it's not the first to offer virtual physician visits. For example, two BlueCross BlueShield insurance organizations in upstate New York began offering their members and employers virtual physician visits last year, making New York the fourth state to provide such services. The service allows patients to talk with physicians in real time through a private online chat network or through a voice-over-IP phone call. It also offers video chat and instant messaging.

Other medical facilities throughout the U.S. offer physician/patient communication through Twitter.

Far from impersonal, studies have shown that virtual medicine, where physicians conduct face-to-face online chats with patients, or use instant messaging, is as effective as in-person visits. In fact, one study showed remote treatment improved doctor-patient communication because a physician can spend less time with administrative duties, has an electronic medical record on hand and can share information in real time with the patient.

With Rite Aid's face-to-face consultations over the Internet, customers can see and speak directly to doctors who are able to discuss symptoms, provide guidance, diagnose and prescribe certain medications. Customers can also interact with OptumHealth nurses, who are able to offer basic health care education, information on common acute issues and assistance in identifying appropriate provider options for care.

A customer record is automatically captured at the end of each interaction and is available for immediate sharing with the person's primary care provider. That helps maintain continuity of care.

The technology for the online consultation services is provided by American Well, a supplier of telehealth software.

Customers can also access the NowClinic Online Care site anytime, allowing them to get care if they can't visit a doctor's office or need help when their local Rite Aid is closed.

"This collaboration reflects Rite Aid's continuing commitment to support the total health and well-being of our communities," said Robert Thompson, Rite Aid Executive vice president of Pharmacy. "Our customers will be able to ask questions or receive care from doctors and health education from nurses online, fill prescriptions and consult with their Rite Aid pharmacist, all in one convenient visit."

"OptumHealth's vision for NowClinic is to provide consumers with greater control of their health care experience," said Chris Stidman, senior vice president of OptumHealth Care Solutions. "We are excited that this collaboration will help Detroit-area residents connect with doctors, OptumHealth nurses and other care providers in the trusted, convenient settings of their community Rite Aid pharmacies in Michigan."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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