WellStar, Mayo form health care partnership

One of metro Atlanta’s biggest hospital chains is joining with the Mayo Clinic to enable doctors handling complex cases to electronically consult with specialists at the renowned medical research group.

The deal could cut down on the need for patients to travel long distances for consultations or care, executives at Marietta-based WellStar Health System said.

WellStar doctors now can choose to consult electronically on their patients’ cases with Mayo physicians, according to an agreement announced Thursday. If necessary, the patient still can be sent to a Mayo facility.

Patients do not decide whether they get to see a Mayo doctor. But any WellStar physician will have access to the network. There is no additional cost to patients.

Executives said the arrangement will promote physician collaboration, speed the transfer of electronic patient medical records and provide expertise when needed, improving on the traditional patient information sharing and referral process. Doctors often consult with one another on complex cases, but it may be done in an informal and possibly less efficient way.

The association with a prominent health care brand could boost WellStar’s image, while offering Mayo access to a new group of patients. WellStar will pay Minnesota-based Mayo a fee based on volume of services, executives said.

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WellStar, whose hospitals logged more than 2 million admissions last year, primarily serves five counties including Cobb, Cherokee, Bartow, Douglas and Paulding. The Mayo Clinic Care Network has 25 members in 14 states including St. Francis Hospital in Columbus.

“In most cases this eliminates the patient’s need to travel,” said Stephen Lange, southeast medical director of Mayo Clinic Care Network. He said about 30 percent of network patients whose doctors do electronic consultations are still referred to a Mayo facility.

Advances in medical treatments, coupled with specialization, have sent more patients traveling for consultation or treatment, though numbers are hard to come by.

“Our key tenet is that it is best for patients to receive their care as close as possible to home,” Lange said. “Our hope is that the offerings of the Mayo Clinic Care Network strengthen the ability of patients to receive high quality, state-of-the-art care locally … ”

Cutting down on travel is not purely economic, said Robert Jansen, executive vice president and chief administrative medical officer of WellStar. “The stress of travel is a complication to a patient in recovery,” he said.

All medical areas are covered, including oncological and cardiovascular care, under the network, executives said. But Lange noted that referrals would most likely occur in complex cases “where there is debate about what to do next.”

Mayo Clinic services available to WellStar as a result of the deal include:

— Electronic consulting allowing doctors to connect directly with Mayo specialists on complex cases.

— Around-the-clock access to Web-based medical information and guidelines vetted by Mayo.

— Health care industry business expertise.

Health care analysts say that Mayo is among nationally-known health systems, such as Cleveland Clinic, with a brand name that can be leveraged to other markets.