Still in infancy, TRICARE Online's potential is vast
Military Update focuses on issues affecting pay, benefits and lifestyle of active and retired servicepeople. Its author, Tom Philpott, is a Virginia-based syndicated columnist and freelance writer. He has covered military issues for almost 25 years, including six years as editor of Navy Times. For 17 years he worked as a writer and senior editor for Army Times Publishing Co. Philpott, 49, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1973 and served as an information officer from 1974-77.
By Tom Philpott
TRICARE Online, a new Internet tool for military healthcare, is like a Swiss Army knife, loaded with gadgets, in the hands of a Cub Scout. The potential is enormous but it might be a few years before it's used to full effect.
But military beneficiaries with access to a computer would be wise to visit www.tricareonline.com now. Thousands of TRICARE Prime enrollees, in select regions, already use it to make primary care appointments at military treatment facilities. Registered users, at 30,000 and climbing, can book appointments in a matter of seconds. They also can find information there about physicians and facilities responsible for their care.
By late January, these same beneficiaries will be able to make specialty appointments in clinics that allow self-referrals, such as optometry, podiatry and dermatology.
TRICARE Online will be active worldwide, at 76 major military hospitals and more than 500 smaller treatment facilities by mid-April. But Navy Capt. Brian J. Kelly, director of e-business, policy and standards for Defense Department health affairs, said TRICARE Online already is a valuable asset to TRICARE beneficiaries.
It serves as a single Internet portal to visit other TRICARE or related Web sites. It also delivers a wealth of healthcare information more than 18 million pages on medical conditions, treatments and more.
Next year, registered beneficiaries will be able to refill prescriptions online. In time, any beneficiary will be able to refill prescriptions online through the military's mail-order pharmacy plan.
But only TRICARE Prime and Plus patients will be able to make appointments online because only they have care managed by military treatment facilities. Kelly doesn't envision an appointments feature extending to users of TRICARE civilian networks.
"Most of those providers don't have their appointments on any type of information system," he said. "So there isn't a system for us to link to."
TRICARE Online began in June 2001 at four test sites: Andrews Air Force Base, Md.; Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C.; and Rader Clinic at Fort Myer, Va. Last November, it was expanded to TRICARE Region 9 (Southern California), most of Region 11 (Washington, Oregon and Northern Idaho, but not Alaska) and all of Central Europe. Unlike other TRICARE Web sites, TRICARE Online is built with the patient in mind, officials said.
The first official TRICARE Web site, www.tricare.osd.mil, continues to have "a lot of great information," said Kelly. But information in that portal is now available, along with a lot more, through TRICARE Online.
"If you're a patient looking for medical information about your doctors, hospitals you might visit, clinics you might go to that's all tailored to you on TRICARE Online," Kelly said. But most attractive to registered users will be the appointments feature and pharmacy refills.
Users of a military facility can "pull up an appointment schedule late at night when the kids are asleep, look at their calendars for the next week and figure out what would be a convenient appointment."
Every doctor at a TRICARE Online facility is required to set up a home page with biographical information. Kelly, a practicing neurologist at Bethesda Naval Medical Center, Md., said his site also links patients to useful information on the types of conditions he treats, such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's disease.
In six more months, military doctors should be linked through TRICARE Online to the military's evolving worldwide medical information system, which then will allow secure e-mail with patients.
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