Arthritis patients can lower their medical costs and decrease delays by using a new online consultation tool, Chinese researchers reported at the 2017 American College of Rheumatology annual meeting in San Diego. The apps are called Smart System of Disease Management.

“In China, there are over 100 million people suffering from rheumatic disease. These patients seek medical services in a hospital regularly. However, only 5,000 rheumatologists are available across the country, and most of them only practice in the top-tier hospitals in major cities,” said lead author Fei Xiao, CEO of Cinkate Corporation.

“Most arthritis patients in China must travel long distances to seek rheumatologic care at a hospital, and must stay in nearby hotels and endure long waits for a visit with the clinician,” he added. “It is not uncommon for most Chinese rheumatologists to have to see up to 60 to 100 patients daily. Because of the large volume of patients who go to major hospitals for regular clinical care, physicians may only spend three minutes on average with each patient. This limits the time to do objective disease activity evaluations.”

Between Feb. 2015 and June 2017, 403 rheumatologists used the system to consult with 4,002 patients with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, ankylosing spondylitis, gout, osteoarthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome, and other rheumatic diseases. The doctors had 293 free and 3,709 paid consultations, and fees ranged from 10 renminbi (about $1.50) to 500 yuan (about $75), matching rates typical for the region.

The rheumatologists in the study collected a total of 477,960 yuan (nearly $72,000) from patients, 35.3 percent of which lived in different cities from the one in which the physician was based. Had the patients needed to come to a hospital, rather than consulting online, they would have spent 3,157,220 yuan (more than $475,000), or more than 6.5 times higher than they actually paid, the researchers found. Those costs included transportation, lodging, food, lost wages, as well as medical-related charges.

And not only did patients appear to save a lot of money, but 66.35 percent reported being very satisfied with the online consultation.

“SSDM inspires a paradigm shift in medical care for chronic disease through empowering the patient,” Xiao said. “This model can be replicated into the other disciplines and fields of chronic disease.”