Health care costs have risen and it can take weeks to get a doctor's appointment, but a Hilton Head Island man's company says it offers employers a remedy: an over-the-phone medical service that makes employees' care less expensive and more convenient.
ISelectMD, which started in 2010 on Hilton Head, connects patients with nonemergency ailments to certified physicians. It's part of an emerging trend called telemedicine, an umbrella-term for services that use technology -- video, telephones, even social media -- to bridge the gap between doctor and patient.
"Imagine being able to pick up the phone and talk to a doctor on WebMD," ISelectMD founder Michael Iaquinta said, referring to the popular website that allows users to enter symptoms and search for their causes.
Iaquinta sells his service to companies as a $2.50-a-month supplement to their current health insurance plans. For a $25 consult fee, employees receive 24-hour access to telephonic medical care for illnesses such as flu, allergies, respiratory infections, bronchitis, and ear and urinary tract infections.
Iaquinta said the Affordable Care Act, which is causing controversy and uncertainty in some segments of the health care industry, should not have a big impact on his business.
"Eighty-five to 90 percent of our customers are already insured," he said. "What I will tell you is that we are getting insurance back to what it's meant for -- traumatic events like car accidents or cancer."
Customers contact iSelectMD's call centers -- on Hilton Head and in Bridgeport, W. Va. -- and describe symptoms. Then the call center contacts one of the service's doctors, who reconnects with the customer.
"We consult, diagnose, and if appropriate, prescribe," Iaquinta said. "Doctors can review the patients' health history online and discuss over the phone. Doctors have been diagnosing over the phone for years; we've just commoditized it."
Iaquinta's first two customers were Year Round Pool and Coastal States Bank. Now, more than 1,000 companies have signed up in seven states, including local companies like Bluffton-based CareCore and Hilton Head Honda.
The business has 20 employees on Hilton Head and a network of more than 200 physicians, Iaquinta said.
Dominick Woofter, a family physician in Clarksburg, W.Va., has worked with iSelectMD for more than a year.
"It's definitely unique," he said. "I've worked in health care for 12 years, and we always do overnight calls for other people in our group, so it's not new. But having a service dedicated to it is."
By doctors' third or fourth year of residency, Woofter says, they should be able to diagnosis common ailments within 20 seconds of an interview -- on the phone or in person.
He said a patient's medical history plays a big role in diagnosis. ISelectMD allows patients to update medical history online and save it in the company's cloud portal, which is kept secure and is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, Iaquinta said.
Woofter still works daily at the practice he shares with his wife and fields two or three iSelectMD calls a day, he said.
He said the service isn't meant to replace in-person contact between patient and doctor. Instead, it cuts out unnecessary treatments, like chest X-rays and antibiotics for a cold, that cost hundreds in deductibles.
"My clinical decisions on the phone are limited in scope," he said. "I'm a proponent that a virus is a virus. Sometimes all those things need is time, not overtreatment. Obviously, if I had someone who had a cough, but then I'm talking with them and they say they have unusual shortness of breath when they walk and chest heaviness, this is getting out of scope, and they need to go to the hospital."
While Iaquinta says physicians don't get paid as much with his service as they would at a hospital or urgent-care center, the simplicity of iSelectMD has lots of doctors calling him.
"The modern doctor has to deal with more factors than just treating patients," he said. "With us, there's no pressure from administration, no billing, no complications with insurance."
More doctors might soon be using services like iSelectMD, according to former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona.
In a Huffington Post column this week, he advocated a push for more telemedicine.
"With a nationwide broadband network and the commonplace use of personal computers, handheld tablets and smartphones, it simply makes health sense and economic sense for many Americans to receive health advice via virtual platforms," he wrote.
Health care providers are listening.
The American Telemedical Association reported in October that the telemedicine industry has grown tremendously, with a 10 percent jump in private companies during the past year.
Bz Giese, bureau director of health services at the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services, says the agency has increasingly used telemedicine, particularly video, to connect rural patients, some who might not have medical access, to doctors.
In the past two years, she says, the number of Medicaid claims made via telemedicine has increased 300 percent.
"Psychiatry and OB-GYNs are our primary utilizations," she said. "It's been a very important resource."
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.