E-health and Web 2.0: The doctor will tweet you now

Patients can now meet their doctors in 'the cloud'

When Janel Wood's 9-year-old son recently began experiencing migraines, the working mother decided to try a new company health care program that allowed her to communicate with a doctor through videoconferencing, voice over IP, and instant messaging.

While her son was home for lunch, Wood logged onto a portal offered by medical plan Online Care Anywhere and connected via videoconferencing and IM with the doctor on duty at her local hospital, who then reviewed her son's electronic medical record (EMR) online. The doctor sent Wood links to migraine articles and podcasts and prescribed more hydration for her son, which worked over time.

"I ended up bringing [my son] back to school before missing any classes, which he was kind of bummed about. It was so quick and efficient," Wood said.

While telemedicine may seem a cold and impersonal approach to patient care, physicians say it's exactly the opposite. And they are quickly embracing it as a way to foster a more intimate relationship with patients and educate them about treatments prior to office visits.

"We're getting very positive feedback from patients," said Dr. Eric Christianson, assistant medical director of the emergency room at University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview. Fairview now has 36 physicians who are beta-testing patient Web 2.0 services powered by software from SaaS provider American Well.

Physicians take shifts during which they commit to being available for online sessions with patients. Fairview's hours are from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the weekend.

American Well partnered with Microsoft to use its HealthVault EMR service, which allows patients to securely store their entire medical history online. Test results and radiological images can also be uploaded to the online records. Patients control access to their information and must specify who can see the records. Google Health is another popular online EMR service also being used to access patient information online.

BlueCross and BlueShield of Minnesota makes the online patient services available to employers, who then offer it to employees. There is a $20 fee for employees and dependents of Blue Cross Minnesota, regardless of whether they are Blue Cross members. The average price for a visit otherwise is $45. In other states, however, BlueCross and BlueShield offers the services to any member, regardless of employer.

Social networking sites get in the game

It's not only secure videoconferencing, IM or e-mail that's being used to bolster communication with patients. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are also being used by physician practices and hospitals to disseminate health information and create online communities where patients can share their experiences.

Jeff Livingston, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Irving, Texas, said his 10-doctor practice has about 600 Facebook fans and more than 1,500 Twitter followers. They not only use the social networking service to communicate through text messaging, but can read and comment on postings about birth control, breast feeding and a variety of other health care topics.

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