Elle Ashton was pretty sure the "crud" that made her head feel like it was in a crushing vise had morphed into a sinus infection. But with no health insurance, the 20-year-old college student and part-time restaurant worker said even a trip to MinuteClinic or Target seemed too expensive.
Ashton decided to log on to Virtuwell, an online medical clinic, for a diagnosis instead. "I was skeptical," said Ashton, of Minnetonka. "But the website was super user-friendly, and took all of 15 minutes to go through the questions."
Bloomington-based HealthPartners launched Virtuwell in September 2010 and has relied on a snappy marketing campaign that has included messages on bar coasters, ads about bladder infections on stall doors of women's restrooms and billboards with a giant tissue box.
HealthPartners officials say the number of patients treated through the Virtuwell site tripled in its second year and that more than 40,000 have paid for the service to date.
St. Paul-based Zipnosis launched a similar service after a one-year pilot program with Park Nicollet in 2009. Zipnosis has seen 10,000 patients to date, and expects to double or triple that number in the first six months of 2013. Both Zipnosis and Virtuwell expect to expand into new states and develop mobile applications in the next quarter.
Web-based medicine is undergoing explosive growth as consumers, health insurers and employers are drawn to the convenience of timely, low-cost care for minor ailments.
Doctors and hospital systems are warming to the notion of round-the-clock e-visits as well, particularly as federal health reform rolls out. With an estimated 30 million Americans expected to gain access to insurance in 2014, finding effective and low-cost ways to divert those with easy-to-diagnose problems such as earaches, pink eye and skin rashes can help alleviate a looming shortage of primary care doctors.
Medicare doesn't cover such visits, but analysts believe it's only a matter of time.