We are living in a world of convenience. Fast-food restaurants are around every corner, television shows can be streamed instantly, and the answer to almost any question is just a Google search away. Medicine is also becoming more convenient through health-centric smartphone apps and EMRs, but the real convenience lies with virtual doctors. For many practices, no longer will patients have to get out of bed and travel to their doctor’s office when they are feeling sick. A virtual doctor is just a mouse click away.
A virtual doctor is a doctor made available via videoconferencing. Instead of driving to a doctor’s office, patients can simply log in to a video chat service from the comfort of their own home. Instead of waiting days or weeks to schedule a doctor’s appointment, a video conference can be scheduled within minutes or hours. Virtual doctor visits have the potential to become as common as face-to-face visits because health insurers, hospitals, and employers view them as a way to slash rising medical costs. While the price for patients wouldn’t change (they would still pay a charge or a co-pay), insurers would save by not paying out claims for more costly treatment in urgent care centers and hospitals.
Western Pennsylvania–based health giants UPMC and Highmark Inc. are the first in their region to introduce services that allow videoconferencing with doctors. Teladoc, Inc., a Dallas-based company contracted through Highmark, has more than 6 million members signed up across the country. UPMC’s service, AnywhereCare, will be open to anyone in the state of Pennsylvania. In both services, patients are required to set up an account and enter personal information and health history before making a video appointment. Certified medical doctors can diagnose, recommend treatment, and prescribe medication for minor illnesses, such as cold, flu, bronchitis, allergies, and infections. Teladoc guarantees that a virtual doctor will be available within an hour after an online request is made, but the average wait time is currently only 16 minutes in Pennsylvania.
The only catch is, like face-to-face doctors, a virtual doctor must have a license to practice in the same state as the patient, which is slowing down providers’ ability to broadly offer telehealth services. For example, after receiving an organ transplant, multiple follow-up visits are required, but these appointments do not require physical exams and could easily be carried out through teleconferencing. However, this would pose a problem for a patient living out of state because in most states, videoconferencing with patients who live out of state is illegal unless the doctor is licensed to practice medicine in the patient’s home state. The good news is that there is already discussion regarding enabling medical licenses to be recognized across state lines. Unfortunately, experts say that such a law could take years before it goes into effect.
While the concept of virtual doctors has promise, some physicians believe that virtual office visits can’t replace face-to-face consultation. Dr. Bruce MacLeod, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, says nonverbal cues can be very important in accurately diagnosing patients. “I believe telemedicine is going to serve a bigger and bigger role in increasing the efficiency that we can monitor our patients,” MacLeod said. “I think there’s a lot of potential there, but I don’t think it’ll ever replace a personal doctor visit.”
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