Visiting the doctor from home via Verizon video conferencing

June 25, 2014, 4:01 AM UTC
Verizon's new telemedicine system in action from a mobile phone
Credit: Verizon

Verizon wants to help cut down on medical costs and wait times at the doctor’s office.

The telecom giant has announced its arrival on the telemedicine scene by introducing Verizon Virtual Visits, a platform for connecting patients with clinicians via video-conferencing through an app for mobile devices and a web portal. The platform, unveiled on Wednesday, is intended for businesses looking to give their employees access to treatment of minor health problems like cold, flu, sore throat or other acute conditions that don’t require a visit to the emergency room.

The company notes that the costs of emergency room visits for non-urgent care are expected to hit $4.4 billion this year, while a majority of those visits are unnecessary. The company says new patients are already waiting an average of 27 days to schedule a doctor’s appointment and an increase in the number of insured patients in coming years is expected to create a greater shortage of physicians.

With medical costs expected to rise 6.8% next year according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, Verizon is touting telemedicine as a way to reduce both costs and waiting time, especially when it comes to relatively simple illnesses that need to be treated quickly.

“Seventy-six percent of all emergency room visits are non-urgent issues and it’s clogging up the system, it’s keeping people who really need emergency care [from receiving it quickly]. And, then there’s certainly a lot of costs associated with it,” Julie Kling, director of mobile health for Verizon, tells Fortune.

Verizon (VZ) says patients using the Virtual Visits platform can get quick access to clinicians by logging into the app and answering a set of health-related questions before talking face-to-face with medical staff via video. The platform includes GPS to track the patient’s location, making it easier for the clinician to electronically send a prescription to the patient’s pharmacy of choice – or, the nearest one if the patient is traveling.

The whole process, which is available around the clock, is meant to take about 30 minutes and, afterward, the patient’s encrypted data is stored in Verizon’s computers. Patients will also be able to pay the co-pay for their health insurance through the app.

Doctors, health networks and hospital systems can sign up to use Verizon’s telemedicine system to consult patients. Businesses that have doctors and nurses on staff can make them available as well. Otherwise, employers can use clinicians provided by Verizon. It is the employers who pay Verizon for use of the telemedicine system.

Verizon appears to be the first major telecom to enter the market for video-conference doctor visits, though other companies have offered similar platforms, including insurers such as WellPoint.

The company’s cloud storage component is part of a health management platform it launched last October. That service is more about monitoring patients’ health and fitness between doctor visits, something Kling calls a “sister” platform to the Virtual Visits service.

Telemedicine has long been an area that has long drawn interest from companies across the technology, health and insurance industries. But past efforts have largely sputtered because of billing issues, licensing and the general complexity of the healthcare system.

Health and fitness monitoring is an area where more and more telecoms, including AT&T and, recently, Sprint, are setting up shop. Ditto for hardware and software providers such as Apple, which unveiled its Health Kit and Health app at its annual developers conference earlier this month. Google is also expected to release a health data tracking service, called Google Fit, possibly this week.

Kling, who is a nurse by training, points out that the influx of tech products into the healthcare sector is a sign of the times. She says more than half of smartphone owners use their devices to access health information and Virtual Visits is a logical step forward. “This is really that next step: How do you move it from [accessing information] to actually getting the care you need.”

Correction: This article originally misidentified Julie Kling’s title at Verizon, where she is the director of mobile health. The story has been updated.