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The doctor will see you now - on your computer Posted: May 30th, 2013

By Beth Orenstein

Beth Orenstein is a freelance writer from Northampton, Pa. A graduate of Tufts University, she covers health and insurance topics.

Your kid has an earache, but his pediatrician doesn't have an appointment available.

If your health insurance is through Cigna, your child might one day be able to see a doctor without leaving home. Cigna is teaming with MDLIVE to provide online video or telephone consultations with doctors anytime and anywhere. Starting Jan. 1, Cigna will begin offering MDLIVE to several of its self-insured employer clients to test with their employees.

MDLIVE's telehealth service will be available to eligible health plan members 24/7 365 days a year. Patients will be able to consult with doctors who are board-certified in internal medicine, family practice and pediatrics over the telephone or via a live video chat on the computer.

Virtual doctor visits cost-effective, convenient

"MDLIVE's telehealth services enable our increasingly mobile and time-constrained customers to schedule a virtual consult with a board-certified physician and resolve a non-emergency medical issue in less than one hour," said Jackie Aube, head of product development at Cigna in a press release. "It is cost-effective and convenient for minor illnesses such as allergies, pink eye and sinus infections."

Eligible Cigna health plan customers can schedule an appointment time or request to speak to an available health-care professional on demand. The average response time is 11 minutes. The online health-care delivery system is designed for non-emergency medical issues such as cold and flu, rashes, sinus issues and headaches for adults and children.

Cigna has been offering reimbursable "virtual house calls" nationally since 2007. Originally, it offered telehealth services through RelayHealth. RelayHealth offers webVisit consultations using an online, structured interview format to communicate with eligible health-plan customers.

MDLIVE adds a new dimension to Cigna's portfolio of convenient care and telehealth options, Aube said.

Telehealth expected to grow

According to a survey by the consulting firm Mercer, as many as 15 percent of major employers now offer some form of telehealth medicine and another 39 percent are considering it.

Businesses and insurers like telehealth because it could help with the projected shortage of primary care physicians, especially in rural areas. Remote consultations typically cost much less than visits to the emergency department or urgent care centers.

Other insurers that offer virtual doctor visits include WellPoint, Aetna and UnitedHealth Group. Employers who offer virtual doctor visits to their employees include Home Depot, Booz & Co. and Westinghouse Electric.

Currently, 15 states require private health insurance plans to cover virtual visits and 42 states provide some form of Medicaid reimbursement for telehealth services.