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'Gently ill' can web chat with doctors for cheap

Online Care NY
Daniel Robison
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western NY admits that few physicians are currently online and ready to help patients. They’re looking for 25 doctors to kick off the service locally.

In an effort to thin the herd at doctors’ offices during cold and flu season, health insurance provider Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) of Western New York is launching an online service to pair doctors and patients through video chat. 


Health insurance companies envision a large portion of doctor/patient interactions in the future happening online. Buffalo is one of the first places in the country to have access to the experimental service, called Online Care NY.

The service is an attempt to keep the “gently ill” from clogging up doctors’ offices, especially during winter weather season. For $25, patients with small maladies like rashes, sinus infections and colds can chat with a local doctor for 10 minutes over the Internet.

But with only a handful of Buffalo-area doctors currently enrolled in the service, patients could log on to find no one there. Doctors are only available when they make themselves available.

“Very often in doctors’ offices we have patients that cancel, sometimes a visit goes less time than you think. So if you do have opportunities in your day, where there are holes in your day, you can then go online. So it allows a tremendous flexibility from a physician’s point of view,” said Cynthia Ambres, chief medical officer at BCBS of WNY.

Ambres admits actually getting doctors and patients to use the new tool could be a challenge.

“You have to look back at the advent of online banking. And that took about five or six years before people really felt comfortable. Now of course we have them as a little bit of template and that the security issue is not so much there. And so people now think maybe if they can do their banking online, maybe they can do their health care online,” Ambres said.

Company officials admit they will have to aggressively push the service to doctors, who are traditionally hesitant about adopting alternative ways of providing care to individuals.

“It is a little bit of a paradigm shift. We do see this as an adjunct to the in-person office [visit]. It’s not a visit, it’s not a replacement for that in any way, shape or form. And once providers see how this tool can help alleviate some of their work flow issues and take away some of the overhead challenges.,” said Cynthia Erberl, director of physician outreach.

But the barriers to entry for the program are still high.  The Buffalo website, one of the first of its kind, requires patients have access to a high-speed Internet connection, a web cam and Adobe Flash software.  For many, access to those tools is just as obscure as access to a primary care physician.