Dialing for Doctoring: New Health-Care Telephone Services Are Providing Cost-Effective Advice to Families

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New health-care telephone services are providing cost-effective advice to families.

Most parents can remember being awakened in the middle of the night by an inconsolable infant flushed with fever. Fighting panic, the parents must decide quickly whether to treat the child themselves or rush the baby to the emergency room. Now there is another option available for medical problems: 24-hour, health telephone services.

Experts say health-phone lines are booming because cost-conscious insurance companies, health plans and self-insured employer groups are seeking ways to prevent unnecessary trips to the emergency room, which can cost $250 or more. And consumers like the instant access to medical information in this post-Marcus Welby era when doctors don't make house calls and are too harried to spend much time answering questions.

In 1993, health-phone services boasted little more than 1 million members, according to Equitable Securities Corp. of Nashville. Today, about 13 million people are enrolled. By years end, experts believe the industry will boast 40 million members.

"It's growing tremendously," says Todd Richter, an analyst with Dean Witter Reynolds in New York. "I don't see any reason why we won't see 30 percent to 50 percent growth in the industry." Health-phone lines will have particular value for health maintenance organizations, says Richter. "To the extent plan members will call and get information that prevents them from going to an emergency room, it helps [hold down] their cost."

Phone services practice a sort of triage. Registered nurses -- guided by sophisticated computer software and an extensive medical database -- ask a series of questions to determine tile urgency of patients' cases based upon their symptoms. The nurse then advises callers on whether a trip to the emergency room is warranted. Many of the services say they call back to check on the patient.

To avoid charges of malpractice, the nurses aren't allowed to give diagnoses or suggest specific treatment. So far, no lawsuits have been brought against the phone-line companies.

"My wife uses [this kind of] service to call about the kids on the weekend," says Stuart Goldberg, an analyst with Merrill Lynch who follows tile industry. …

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