Dr. Renee Kimball with Northeast Georgia Physicians Group (NGPG) said the technology is similar to what is used in rural areas where access to doctors is limited.
"A lot of specialists use it for underserved areas - video visits and consults and things like that - so it's just an expansion of that [service] to give better access to the patient," Kimball said. "We wanted to start with flu. We thought it was a great way to tackle the flu season, particularly given the deadly flu season we had last year."
Kimball said during the 2017-18 flu season, there were 900,000 hospitalizations across the country, resulting in 80,000 deaths, including 185 children. In Georgia, 145 deaths were attributed to influenza, according the CDC; four people have died so far this year.
Basically, E-Visits allow patients who suspect they have the flu to connect with a provider through an online portal, called MyChart.
"The system prompts them to go through several questions about their symptoms, so we can get complete information from them...and then we get a message," Kimball said. "We can review their entire chart and then we can respond to them via secure messaging, tell them we've reviewed their information and tell them whether we think it's the flu or not, what kind of conservative management can they do at home and we can send in prescriptions as appropriate."
Kimball said physicians are able to tell in the online questionnaire if the patient is not eligible for the online diagnosis and needs to head straight to the doctor or the emergency room.
Overall, Kimball believes E-Visits are a win-win for patients and physicians. She said the online visits keep patients out of crowded waiting rooms, which curbs the spread of germs, whether it's flu or other contagious illnesses. It also reduces the burden on primary care staffs.
"For the majority of our primary care clinics...we have an access issue. We're seeing way too many people during the day to be able to fit in [large numbers of] sick people," Kimball said.
Phone access to physicians is difficult during flu season, as well, since the front staff at the office typically fields the calls and patients end up on hold, unable to get their questions answered in a timely manner.
Kimball said since this is the first season NGPG has tried E-Visits, the doctors can't assess the success of the program just yet. If it does work, then it's possible they will use E-Visits to diagnose and treat other illnesses going forward.
E-Visits are available seven days a week for everyone 18 and older. Kimball said residents do not have to be an NGPG patient to take advantage of the service. E-Visits are not covered by health insurance and cost $40 per visit. For more information, follow this link to the E-Visit web page.