Virtual health care is here to stay

What we know today as "telemedicine" had its roots back in the 1960s, when NASA needed a way to monitor the well-being of Project Mercury astronauts in flight.

It was unknown, for example, whether the human body could function in space, and doctors were concerned that zero gravity could hurt circulation, breathing and digestion.

NASA showed that telecommunications between health care providers and patients could improve access and treatment.

Fast forward about 60 years, and we now have a boom in virtual health care, which was jet-propelled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics who thought virtual care would dwindle after the worst of the pandemic was over - well, they were flat wrong. No matter what you call it - e-health, telemedicine, telehealth or digital care - it's not going away.

It takes a lot of forms. Patient portals connect us with our doctors. Vital signs and chronic conditions can be monitored remotely. We have "office visits" via secure video connections.

But today I want to focus on what is probably the fastest-growing area: virtual care. Many companies, including Walgreens and Amazon, are in the business now of providing access to health care for a variety of conditions, from acid reflux and acne to sinus infections and seasonal allergies.

While it doesn't completely replace the need for in-person care (especially urgent or emergency care for life-threatening situations), virtual care has made getting basic, routine health care more accessible and, in some cases, more affordable.

Amazon unveiled Amazon Clinic a year ago, partnering with a number of virtual care providers. Launched initially as a message-based service, Amazon Clinic has since expanded to all 50 states. Video appointments start at around $70, but "chat" appointments are about half that. There's often a wait of an hour or two, compared to the days it might take to get a brick-and-mortar appointment.

Illinois is one of nine states in which Walgreens last month rolled out its virtual health care services. Most chat visits through Walgreens' virtual health care service will be priced at $33 out-of-pocket, with pricing for video visits varying from $36 to $75, according to the company.

After patients connect with a provider, Walgreens Virtual Healthcare enables them to get their prescriptions filled from their preferred pharmacy, including at Walgreens with same-day delivery.

The list of companies goes on and on: Teladoc, Hims, GNC Health, Doctor-on-Demand, One Medical and many more, who all see a huge business opportunity. And there are several upsides to virtual care:

• Convenience: Patients can consult medical professionals 24/7 from their homes.

• Access: Health care can be extended virtually to remote or underserved areas, or for people who can't physically travel.

• Safety: The pandemic taught us how important it is to limit our exposure to each other when we're sick.

• Comfort: People who are afraid of going to the doctor might be more willing to consult virtually with a health care provider.

• The environment: Virtual health care reduces gas consumption and greenhouse gases.

I think what people focus most on is cost. The rate of uninsured Americans hit a record low in early 2023, but still, more than 25 million of us didn't have coverage. With virtual health, the patient knows up front how much they'll pay - and as you can see, it's usually less than $100. I hope this would encourage uninsured individuals to not ignore emerging health issues.

Small businesses that can't afford to offer health insurance to their employees may be able to offer virtual health care plans. Izzy Kharasch, of, an area restaurant consultant, encourages his clients to give it a try.

"My clients pick up 100 percent of the costs and nearly all employees, regardless of age, participate in the program," he told me.

Virtual care is not a cure-all for what ails our health care system. There are still geographic and regulatory limitations in some states. The companies don't accept insurance, including Medicare, though flexible savings accounts and health savings accounts may be used. As with all technological advances, there is a digital divide between the people who have access to computers and high-speed internet, and those who don't.

Some may be concerned with the security of their information, and will patients be comfortable with a medical practitioner diagnosing a urinary tract infection over chat?

One of my concerns is coordination of care. Theoretically, you could consult 10 different practitioners about 10 different conditions, and there's no one doctor overseeing everything, watching for medication interactions or connecting the dots.

So, bottom line: Virtual care is a useful tool in some health situations, but I would be reluctant to cut ties with a brick-and-mortar doctor's office.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( Her book, "How to Be a Healthcare Advocate for Yourself & Your Loved Ones," is available on Amazon. She is offering a free phone consultation to Daily Herald readers; call her at (312) 788-2640 or email

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