Updated March 21 at 4:03 p.m., to clarify the release date of Austin Regional Clinic's telemedicine platform. 

As Austin Regional Clinic plans to roll out a subscription-based telemedicine service to patients in its 20 locations, a bill filed in the Texas Senate seeks to change restrictions on use of the technology.

Although the concept of telemedicine has been around for years, it has recently become one of the biggest digital trends in the health care field. The idea is to use telecommunications technology, such as computers, smartphones and tablets, to allow doctors to diagnose and treat patients without the need for face-to-face appointments.

“We believe there’s a need out there,” said Dr. Manish Naik, ARC’s chief medical information officer. “Patients do want to be able to use telemedicine to interact with their health care team, and they do have a preference, at least based on the surveys we’ve done, to do it with a doctor that’s part of the medical group that they see.”

Austin provider to offer telemedicine serviceA release date for ARC’s telemedicine platform, called eMD Access, has not been announced, although Naik said it would be available to patients some time this spring.

Telemedicine is not the right fit for every medical situation, but ARC sees its eMD Access platform as a way to offer patients convenience and cost savings when receiving care for common illnesses such as colds, infections, allergies or minor injuries as well as recommendations for over-the-counter or prescription medication, Naik said.

The Texas Medical Board allows medical providers to use telemedicine platforms as long as patients have initial in-person appointments with their doctors. Telemedicine providers have been at odds with the policy, which they say is unnecessary in many of the medical situations telemedicine could serve.

Texas Senate Bill 1107, which was filed Feb. 27, could offer a compromise by letting doctors establish patient relationships remotely as long as the doctor has access to the patient’s medical records before deciding on diagnosis or treatment and provides follow-up care.

Sens. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, authored the bill. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has signed on as co-author.
“We believe there’s a need out there. Patients do want to be able to use telemedicine to interact with their health care team."

— Dr. Manish Naik, Austin Regional Clinic's chief medical information officer

Telemedicine reform was one of nine interim charges assigned by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to the Texas Senate Committee on Health and Human Services prior to the January start of the 85th Legislature, according to the committee’s interim report issued in November.

“Telemedicine increases access to care and increases patient and provider satisfaction,” the report stated. “While the state should continue to build on the successes of telemedicine within public and private systems, any expansion of telemedicine should not replace a physical provider-patient visit when determined to be necessary according to the standard of care.”

The medical board’s requirements were an obstacle for ARC last year when it initially tried to offer eMD Access as a direct-to-employer product to Austin-area companies, Naik said.

Offering the platform instead to ARC patients, who already have established relationships with doctors, allows ARC to pursue telemedicine expansion as a key strategic area regardless of what happens at the Capitol, he said.

With the subscription-based model, patients would pay a monthly fee between $10 and $20 for access either through a computer or a mobile app. Naik compared the arrangement to payment processes for media-streaming services such as Netflix.

ARC staff members are already using eMD Access, and in January the clinic signed a contract with Austin-based health insurance provider Vista360health to offer the platform to its members.

Vista360health President Sharon Alvis said she expects eMD Access, which her company includes in its health plans at no extra cost, will make it easier for users to reach their doctors when they have non-emergency health needs.

“Our organization really believes in the importance of patient access,” Alvis said. “We think it’s beneficial. It’s very efficient.”