Millions of people will be able to see a doctor on their smartphones or laptops for everyday ailments once the nation’s largest drugstore chain and two major insurers expand a budding push into virtual health care.
Walgreens said Wednesday that it will offer a smartphone application that links doctor and patients virtually in 25 states by the end of the year. That growth comes as UnitedHealth Group and the Blue Cross-Blue Shield insurer Anthem prepare to make their own non-emergency telemedicine services available to about 40 million more people by next year.
Doctors have used video feeds and other technology for years to treat patients in rural areas or remote locations. But experts say growing smartphone use and customer demand are fueling a rapid expansion of the practice, called telemedicine, into everyday care the family doctor used to handle. Now this push is gaining an additional boost from health care companies with broad, national reach.
The American Telemedicine Association estimates that about 450,000 patients will see a doctor through the Internet this year for a primary care consultation. That’s a small slice of the roughly 15 million people who will have care delivered by telemedicine, which has mostly been used by specialist doctors. But the primary care portion has probably doubled over the past couple years, said Jon Linkous, CEO of the nonprofit association.