Medicine is undergoing a virtual digital revolution, pushing the common doctor’s office visit into a brave new world of technology.
If you’ve broken out in a strange new rash, are suffering a urinary tract infection, or have one of many other common health issues, you can now consult with a doctor without leaving the comforts of home.
A new breed of medical Apps – such as Teladoc, Doctor on Demand, MDLIVE, American Well, and MeMD – offers up healthcare professionals for consultation over your smartphone, tablet or computer. These services – called telemedicine or telehealth – are typically available seven days a week, around the clock, anywhere in the country.
“People don’t know about telemedicine until they try it for the first time, and then it changes their life,” says Dr. Sylvia Romm, a pediatrician and medical director at American Well.
“Previously, people had to change their lives to interact with the healthcare system. They had to miss work or school, drive or take a bus to a clinic, and otherwise disrupt their daily routines to get care. Telemedicine is a way for healthcare providers to fit into their patients’ lives.”
The telemedicine industry has been around for more than a decade but has exploded over the past few years. Tens of millions of people are now using such apps, and more insurance companies are signing deals with the vendors.
The growth is likely to continue unabated for years to come. MDLIVE CEO Scott Decker has compared the popularity and use of telemedicine today to where the now ubiquitous ride-sharing service Uber was a few years ago.
To participate, all you have to do is download an app, register as a member, fill out a form to identify your symptoms, and request a physician. Companies boast that waiting times that average 10 minutes or less.
Not only will you save time you’d otherwise spend traveling to your doctor’s office but also time in a waiting room with other people who aren’t feeling well, and may even be contagious.
Of course, an e-visit with a doctor won’t help if you’re suffering from a cut that needs to be stitched or chest pains that may signal a heart attack. Acute medical problems and injuries still require immediate attention, which likely means a trip to an emergency room or an urgent care center.
Virtual medicine is also not suited for the treatment of chronic or life-threatening conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes.
But there are many conditions – such as headache, nausea, flu, diarrhea, allergies – that can be treated remotely. Technology even allows doctors to peer into your throat and ears, and listen to your breath and heartbeat. A virtual physician can also write prescriptions for some medications, such as antibiotics.
Costs for an e-visit start at about $50 but may be at least partially covered by insurance.
One realm where telemedicine seems ideally suited is that of behavioral health. Experts say that people suffering from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other psychological problems may feel more comfortable consulting a therapist remotely.
“I think the market is tremendously untapped,” says Decker about virtual psychology. “It probably fits our model even better than a basic physician office visit. A virtual visit can take away the stigma that has been associated with behavioral health issues.”
It also makes treatment for these issues more accessible.
“There’s a great shortage of behavioral health providers, and most are situated in urban areas,” says Romm. “So rural patients sometimes have to drive hours to see someone. And in some conditions, such as agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), people don’t want to leave their homes for anything.
“It can also be better to treat autistic patients in their day-to-day environment at home rather than in an office where the overstimulation can upset them. The convenience of having someone come into your home, when you need them and in a way that is private and reliable, is really a game-changer for a lot of people.”
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