In the last few years, urban areas all over the country have been exploring how they can connect to patients virtually to improve access to primary care and keep people from calling 911 for non-urgent problems.

In Washington, DC, Mary’s Center, a community health center, is piloting a program to provide primary care virtually to Medicaid patients who can’t make it in to any of their clinics. Sometimes there are mobility or childcare issues, some people may not be able to get time off of work. Others simply don’t want to go.

Aimed at connecting patients with different healthcare providers and services that can help them is the real promise of telemedicine in DC, according to Erin Holve, the director of health care reform and innovation at the DC Department of Health Care Finance.

That’s key for DC, which has the highest per capita 911 call volume in the country. Mary’s Center pilot program grew out of AmeriHealth, a Medicaid managed care organization in D.C., approaching the health center and wanting to brainstorm how to get the District’s unnecessary emergency visits down. Now, the program has expanded to Medicaid patients who have Trusted Health Plan.

The managed care organizations get incentives from the city if they reduce ER overuse. And the D.C. council is considering legislation that would expand reimbursement for these types of visits.

Elsewhere, one of the big barriers to telemedicine has been working across state lines; the doctor has to be licensed in the same state as the patient. By working with local patients who would be eligible to come in to the clinic, Mary’s Center sidesteps that problem.

NPR has the story.