It’s winter, you are worried whether your car will start in the morning, and if it does whether you will be able to traverse the snow-covered roads, and — on top of all that — you have a consultation scheduled with a doctor. Wouldn’t it be great if you could turn on your computer, establish a video connection with your physician, and discuss the next step for treatment without having to brave the elements?

Thanks to the growing new field of telemedicine you can do just that, and practices and insurers offering the service are right in our backyard.

The Cardiovascular Care Group, headquartered in Westfield and with offices in Princeton, Shrewsbury, and Morristown, among other locations, has announced that one of its strategic business units, the Vein Institute of New Jersey, is piloting healthcare’s next generation of innovation: Telemedicine visits over a HIPAA-secure, online network. Designed for patient convenience and improved access, the patient will initiate a “live” specialist visit in the comfort of their own home.

This futuristic mode of care utilizes the patient’s own electronic camera-accessorized device — smart phone, tablet, or computer — to conveniently connect to an assigned web address for the Cardiovascular Care Group’s virtual waiting room. Using the audio and video interface, the specialist will perform the consultation as if the patient were sitting in the exam room.

Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey has created Horizon CareOnline, a telehealth benefit that offers access to a board certified, licensed doctor online 24 hours a day, seven days a week — and no appointments needed.

And United Healthcare’s AARP Medicare Supplement Plan offers members telephone consultations with a registered nurse on a 24/7 basis, free of charge.

While the technology that enables telemedicine is now as close as the nearest smart phone, the concept has been around for a long time. The Robert J. Waters Center for Telehealth & e-Health, based in Washington, DC, was formed in 1995 to provide information and guidance to telehealth organizations, covering such topics as physician and nurse licensure; credentialing and privileging; Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement; and private insurance payment policies.

The American Telemedicine Association estimates that there are over 3,500 telemedicine service sites in the U.S. and that over half of all U.S. hospitals currently use some form of telemedicine. The association also notes that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently announced that nearly 700,000 veterans were treated via telehealth this year and just over 2 million telemedicine visits have occurred since the inception of the program.

Dr. Clifford Sales, a board certified vascular surgeon and the managing partner for the Cardiovascular Care Group, New Jersey’s largest vascular group, states “we are excited to offer such innovative technology and convenience to our patients. While maintaining a high level of quality, telemedicine will allow us to reach and assist many more patients who may have been geographically constrained from accessing our services. We see this initiative as a way to improve the health of the population we serve, enhance patient care, and improve the overall patient experience. While telehealth is just starting to gain momentum in New Jersey, we expect that by 2020 it will be as common as a cell phone in your pocket!”

Dr. Sales notes that “not all problems are appropriate for telemedicine visits. There are simply some issues that require a ‘hands-on’ approach that can only be provided in person.”

At this time, the Vein Institute’s telemedicine program is geared towards those new patients who might have a family history of vein problems, those experiencing some fatigue, heaviness, pain, or discomfort in their legs, or for those patients thinking about improving the aesthetic look of their legs.

Telemedicine is a natural evolution to care and treatment across the U.S. For the patients at the Cardiovascular Care Group, technology embraces telemedicine, and it’s for the better — a philosophy shared by a growing number of healthcare providers and insurers.

As part of an ongoing commitment to improve its members’ health care experience through innovation and technology, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey has created Horizon CareOnline.

“Horizon recognizes that there are times when individuals cannot get to a doctor quickly or easily when they get sick, so Horizon CareOnline will go a long way to adding convenience to receiving care from a licensed physician,” said Christopher M. Lepre, senior vice president, Market Business Units, Horizon BCBSNJ.

Horizon CareOnline is available at no cost share to individual policy holders — and family members on their policies — who purchase Horizon products through the Federal Marketplace (Healthcare.gov) or directly from Horizon BCBSNJ. The service is offered through American Well, a market leader in telehealth. As of January 1, members can access Horizon CareOnline on their laptop or desktop computers by signing up at Horizon.Amwell.com, or calling 1-855-818-DOCS (3627).

Smart phone and tablet users can enroll by downloading American Well’s free Amwell app from the ITunes Store or Google Play. Members are then able to select from a list of doctors, including Spanish-speaking physicians, for their virtual visits. Doctors on Horizon CareOnline for BCBSNJ members are board-certified and New Jersey licensed and credentialed.

“Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Jersey is bringing healthcare home to members,” said Roy Schoenberg, CEO of American Well. “We are proud to collaborate in this mission.”

Horizon CareOnline is one of many ways that Horizon BCBSNJ is making health care more convenient through technology. For more than a decade, Horizon BCBSNJ has offered members a 24/7 registered nurse phone service. Members on the go can also use Horizon BCBSNJ’s mobile app, which allows users to create a virtual ID card, review the status of a claim, find a network physician, and access other health insurance benefits.

As the August, 2014, issue of the trade journal “Clinical Innovation and Technology” reports, “telemedicine is all the rage these days with the FDA focusing on appropriate oversight for medical devices in recent months, more providers sharing their successes, and studies on the possibilities it can bring in improving healthcare quality and outcomes and saving money.”

The journal cited a survey that found that 37 percent of U.S. employers said they expect to offer their employees telemedicine consultations by 2015. Another 34 percent are considering offering telemedicine for 2016 or 2017. Overall, the percentage of employers offering telemedicine is expected to rise from 22 percent to 37 percent.

Proponents of telemedicine are aware of privacy concerns and are working proactively to ensure data security. This January Senator Charles E. Schumer asked the Federal Trade Commission to strengthen rules so health data from fitness bracelets, like FitBit, cannot be sold without consumer consent.

According to Clinical Innovation and Technology, companies that manufacture fitness bracelets or maintain health apps, can gather and sell highly personal data, like steps per day, sleep patterns, calories burned, GPS locations, and even weight and blood pressure, without users’ knowledge or consent. Schumer asked the FTC to require fitness device and app companies to provide a clear and obvious opportunity to “opt-out” before any personal health data is provided to third parties.

As Dr. Sales of the Cardiovascular Care Group points out, a lot of the value of telemedicine is in establishing the initial relationship between physician and patient. “Especially for cosmetic cases, we can advise the patient what kind of problem they have, and can give them an honest assessment of what can be done to help them. If they like you and trust you, they will consider working with you. A lot of people ‘doctor shop,’ and they should,” says Dr. Sales. “This makes shopping a lot easier.”

For more information: The Vein Institute of New Jersey is a strategic business unit of the Cardiovascular Care Group. The Cardiovascular Care Group is New Jersey’s largest vascular practice and it has been providing quality state-of-the art care for more than 50 years. For more information or to set up an appointment, contact kcoleman@tcvcg.com or phone 973-759-9000, ext. 426. You may also find out more by visiting www.veininstitutenj.com, www.theveincenter.com, or www.tcvcg.com.

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