Two of the area's biggest corporations, operating from vastly different corners of the business world, have found common ground in a new joint venture.
BayCare Health System and Publix Super Markets are pairing up in the fast-changing area of telemedicine. Their product: convenience, as in going to the doctor while you shop for groceries.
What started as an experiment late last year at a handful of Publix stores will be expanding to nearly two dozen more locations in the coming months. At BayCare's new "Walk-In Care" kiosks near the Publix pharmacy, customers can talk remotely to a physician to address simple medical problems like a sore throat or head cold without the usual logistical complexities.
"Getting in to see the doctor isn't easy. It takes days or weeks to make an appointment sometimes, and then it can take hours of waiting in the office. This is much easier," said Publix spokesman Brian West. "We believe this is a game changer. It will have a major impact on the overall cost of health care too."
Health care providers in recent years have been steadily rolling out new forms of telemedicine, where doctors can treat simple medical issues virtually and help keep patients out of the emergency room or even an urgent care clinic. Millennials are driving the trend, said Glenn Waters, executive vice president and chief operating officer with BayCare.
A recent study by the firm Rock Health found that 42 percent of millennials have used video telemedicine services already, compared to 25 percent of Gen Xers and less than 5 percent of Baby Boomers.
"In general, it's a younger population that responds first. But there's these expectations from older generations for health care, and a lot of times they are just as literate as my kid online," Waters said. "I think it will be accepted by most people because of the ease and convenience."
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Waters said the speediness of telemedicine is part of the new normal. Patients are demanding a better customer experience from providers, and telemedicine is one way to reach people more efficiently.
"A nurse or a physician can see patients from anywhere," he said. "It's improving access to care. The underlying principle that drove our thought process on this is how difficult it can be to get in to see a primary care physician. In the case of a sick family member, you're left with going to the emergency room or urgent care."
Telemedicine isn't new, with smartphone apps like BayCare Anywhere or Tampa General Hospital's Virtual Care already in use. Using a grocery store screen to see a doctor and get a prescription can be a similar experience.
But the new service doesn't stop there.
Publix has built a private room near the pharmacy for the walk-in care kiosks. Inside, patients can talk privately to doctors on a large screen. Stored in cubbies along the sides of the screen are six medical tools — a thermometer, a pulse oximeter, a "derm cam" to take photos of skin issues like rashes, a blood pressure measurement device, an otoscope and a stethoscope.
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Patients can pay through their insurance with a copay, or just pay the flat $45 fee for the service. The screen scans credit cards, driver's licenses and insurance cards. It also records all vital information, such as a patient's temperature and blood pressure.
Users can select the "next available" physician or choose from a list of other available doctors. Pediatricians are available to treat children, too.
Doctors can ask patients questions and see them on their own screen. They can see inside a patient's ear with the otoscope and read their pulse and blood pressure. They can also write a prescription and send it to the adjacent Publix pharmacy, or a patient can elect for it to be sent to a different pharmacy.
On the doctor's computer, a clock keeps track of time so the sessions tend to be on the short side, about 10 minutes.
At the end of every session, Publix pharmacy employees disinfect the Walk-In Care room and clean all the equipment before the next patient can come in.
A BayCare health official follows up by phone with every patient a few days after the initial appointment.
For more serious medical issues, the telemedicine doctors will recommend or refer patients to urgent care centers or their primary care doctors, said Dr. Jose Santana, a BayCare network physician who runs his own practice in Clearwater. Santana says he tries to treat patients virtually around 16 hours a month, mostly from his computer in his home office at the end of his usual work day.
He finds that the hours peak after traditional work hours. He said use of the virtual tools has increased recently too, especially during this busy flu season.
"A woman called in recently concerned about her 90-year-old mother's eye. It's difficult to transport someone at that age to and from the doctor, so they tried it this way," Santana said. "She was worried her mother had pink eye, but it ended up being shingles. I've seen shingles so many times, I was able to confidently diagnose it through the screen."
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Another time, one of Santana's routine patients used the telemedicine tool as a way to get his blood pressure medication refilled.
"He and his wife had moved to Riverview. So instead of coming all the way to Clearwater for the appointment, we checked in this way and I was able to get him his prescription quickly," Santanta said.
There are four Walk-In Care kiosks up and running in the Tampa Bay area: at the Publix on Lithia Pinecrest Road in Valrico, another on Tampa Palms Boulevard in Tampa, on Van Dyke Road in Lutz and on Starkey Road in Largo. The kiosks are open during pharmacy hours, which can vary with each store.
BayCare and Publix plan to open 22 more centers across the region this year.
"With Publix, this began as an experiment," Waters said. "But now we're looking at ways to roll this out into the four counties we operate in predominantly."
Contact Justine Griffin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.