County residents feeling ill will soon have the option of skipping the doctor’s office and speaking with a physician through a free smartphone app.

Hancock Regional Hospital will begin offering virtual doctor visits in the coming months through an app that provides 24-hour on-demand care from health care professionals.

Using the app, available for iPhones in the App Store and for Android devices on Google Play, patients may video chat with a doctor at a cost of $39 per visit — less than many are charged for an in-person appointment, officials said. The physician can prescribe medications and send prescriptions to the patient’s pharmacy through the app as well.

The program is intended for smartphones, but the virtual visits also are available for PC through amwell.com.

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Eventually, Hancock Regional officials plan to add local doctors to the roster of available physicians; for now, patients may choose from a list of board-certified doctors across the country who are specially trained in virtual healthcare. The American Well app shows each doctor’s availability, including a list of how many patients are in line for each physician.

Making doctors accessible virtually aligns with the hospital’s proactive-care mission to provide wellness resources to residents before they have to set foot inside hospital doors, officials said.

Hospital officials hope patients with a minor ailment might utilize the app for a quick consultation instead of waiting until their symptoms are so serious, they need to go to the  emergency department.

The hospital’s proactive-care efforts also aim to reduce the number of people who must be readmitted to the hospital after being discharged, said Rob Matt, Hancock Regional Hospital chief operating officer. The app gives patients the chance to easily touch base with a physician, who can check on their medication dosages, answer follow-up questions and make sure the patient is following their doctor’s instructions.

Offering virtual visits also is viewed as a means of dealing with an anticipated doctor shortage, officials said. The projected shortfall could be 94,700 fewer physicians than needed by 2025, according to a study by the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The hospital can provide the virtual urgent care service because it counts itself among the eight hospitals in the Suburban Health Organization of Indiana, a collective working together to promote quality, efficiency and patient access in the communities they serve. The members share the cost of the bill, said Steve Long, Hancock Regional Hospital CEO.

Doctor visits via video conferencing became legal in Indiana July 1, and SHO member hospitals wanted to offer that option to their patients, Long said. Hancock Regional and the other participating hospitals’ patients get a $10 discount from the usual $49 cost of a virtual visit thanks to the partnership.

Virtual visits offer convenience for patients, who can chat with a doctor from the comfort of their home 24 hours a day. Patients who use the app typically wait fewer than five minutes before they speak with a physician, Matt said, which could be helpful for those who are working and don’t have a lot of time to get to the doctor.

Cindy Martin Carver of Greenfield, whose primary-care physician works with Hancock Health, said she feels lucky to have that option.

“I think it would be awesome, if you’re sick, you could just talk to the doctor instead of going to the office and infecting others,” she said. “Plus, if you don’t feel well, it will be nice to talk to the doctor from your own home.”

The app gives residents a chance to ask advice, Matt said.

“It’s not just about urgent care,” Matt said. “For patients with a chronic illness, they need a regular connection with their physician. This could also be great for someone who, for example, has a cut and needs to ask if they should go to the emergency department.”

Options like virtual doctor visits are just part of healthcare evolving to provide patients with what they want, said Dr. Mike Fletcher, a physician who works for Hancock Physician Network.

Patients want excellent health care, but they also crave convenience, especially younger patients and tech-savvy Baby Boomers, he said.

“As the healthcare environment evolves, our focus is going to be on providing the best care possible,” he said, “and that may mean we won’t have to see the patient in the office,” Fletcher said.

How it works

To complete a virtual doctor’s visit, patients open the American Well app (available for iPhones on the App Store and for Androids on Google Play), select a physician from a list of options, then wait a short time before a video conference opens with the physician.

The physician will ask a series of questions about the patient’s symptoms in order to make a recommendation or diagnosis. The patient may be referred to follow-up visits at the doctor’s office. The physician can prescribe medication from the app.

Users are charged immediately through the app.

The program is intended for smartphones, but the feature is also available for PC through amwell.com.

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Rorye Hatcher is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at ​317-477-3211 or rhatcher@greenfieldreporter.com.