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Virtual doctor visits: A new kind of house call

A doctor shows up on your computer or smartphone, not your doorstep. Should you try it?

virtual doctor visits
Image: AndreyPopov/ Thinkstock

Getting a doctor’s advice no longer requires a visit to the exam room. Thanks to videoconferencing applications (apps) for smartphones, tablets, and home computers, you can experience a virtual visit with a physician at any time, day or night. “The convenience factor is striking. You’re home sick, and 24/7 you can see a doctor on your electronics,” explains Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, an internist and a Harvard Medical School researcher who studies new ways of delivering health care.

Not just a fad

Virtual visits are part of the trend toward making health care more convenient, and they’re already popular. “We can conservatively estimate that there will be at least a million virtual doctor visits in 2016,” says Dr. Mehrotra.

The benefits go beyond convenience. The visits make health care accessible to people who no longer drive or those who live in rural areas. Cost is another big attraction: it’s $40 or $50 per visit, about half the cost of an in-person visit.

Because virtual visits appear to be so much cheaper, the majority of insurance companies are now covering them. Some insurance companies, such as some Blue Cross policies, offer their own virtual doctor services free of charge. Medicare does not cover virtual visits. However, the cost sometimes is less than the out-of-pocket copayment that Medicare requires for an in-person doctor visit.

Quality of care

Physicians who take part in virtual visits are vetted. They’re assigned to you based on where you live, they are licensed in your state, they’re board-certified, they carry malpractice insurance, and they can even order tests and prescriptions for you. But without seeing you in person, their ability to assess you is limited. “The physician can look at your rash, but can’t examine the back of your throat or listen to your lungs. If it’s a virtual visit for depression, it probably doesn’t make a difference. But if you’re having abdominal pain, you really need a doctor who can perform a physical examination,” says Dr. Mehrotra.

Studies on virtual visits have been mixed. For example, antibiotics may not be prescribed as appropriately during virtual visits as during in-person visits. “And it appears that physicians are much less likely to order a test you may need, which could be a problem if you have strep throat,” says Dr. Mehrotra.

When to try a visit

Virtual visits aren’t meant to replace every trip to the doctor’s office. They can be helpful if you have a sudden, “minor” temporary illness such as a cold or flu, sinusitis, a sore throat, a urinary tract infection, a rash, diarrhea and vomiting, or conjunctivitis-particularly if you can’t reach your doctor.

For older adults, however, such “minor” conditions can occasionally lead to serious health problems. They are best addressed by an in-person visit to your regular doctor or, failing that, a doctor at a walk-in clinic.

An important potential problem with any virtual visit is that the doctor is unlikely to have any information about you: diseases you may have, your recent test results, the medicines you are taking, and so forth. If you are completely healthy, this may not be an issue. But a virtual doctor who doesn’t have this information can make the wrong decision. Also, if your virtual doctor has no way of communicating to your regular doctor what your symptoms were, what tests were ordered, and what treatments were prescribed, that makes it harder for your regular doctor to provide you optimal care. So, if you can see your regular doctor promptly, that’s almost always the best option.

Experiencing a virtual visit

To try a virtual visit, you need a smartphone, a tablet, or a computer with a camera. If you’re using a smartphone or tablet, download the app for the service you’d like to use. With a computer, you can conduct visits at the website address. Two of the most widely used are Teladoc (www.teladoc.com) and Doctor On Demand (www.doctorondemand.com).

You’ll have to create an account with a password and enter your payment information, medical history, and current symptoms. After you request a consultation, a doctor in your state will review your information, then appear in a video box on your screen within 20 minutes. If you want the doctor to see something, such as a rash, you’ll need to hold it up to the camera. Visits last about 10 or 15 minutes. If the doctor prescribes a medication, the prescription will be sent electronically to your pharmacy.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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