These days, you can do just about anything online. From buying a new pair of shoes to chatting with the college roommate you haven’t seen in 30 years, the capabilities of the Internet seem to grow every day. It only makes sense, then, that the health care industry is catching up and using online tools to provide better care for patients.
The idea of seeing a doctor online might feel strange — after all, how can a physician truly evaluate you if you aren’t sitting in front of him or her — but thousands of people have found that telemedicine, or medicine via computer, is a convenient and effective way to see a doctor and get on with their lives. In fact, some experts even predict that online medicine will become commonplace in the coming years, with most patients communicating with their providers at least partially via online tools and applications.
Increased Access, Increased Convenience
Think about the last time you were sick. Stuck at home in bed with a fever, chills, and body aches, the last thing you wanted to do was drag yourself out into the cold weather and sit in a doctor’s office waiting to be seen — and then go to the pharmacy to wait for medication. You probably wished that your doctor made house calls.
Online health care is very much like the house calls of the past, except your doctor comes to you via a secure online connection. Using webcams, smartphone flashlights, and the patients’ own descriptions, doctors can conduct examinations for minor illnesses, follow up on patients with chronic conditions, and in some cases, make diagnoses, and write prescriptions. In most cases, patients talk with a doctor and have instructions within 10-15 minutes, instead of waiting for hours for an appointment or in the waiting area of an emergency room.
Some are touting the growth of online telemedicine as the next wave of health care delivery. According to one survey of human resources executives, about half of all employers will offer some type of telemedicine service as part of a benefits package within the next two years; currently, about 15 percent of large employers provide telemedicine to their employees. In an era when increased access to health care is a priority, especially in rural areas, telemedicine helps to fill in the gaps and make it easier for those living a great distance from their providers to get the services they need. Not to mention, telemedicine is affordable: On average, a 10-15 minute consultation costs less than $50, and in many cases, it’s covered by insurance.
Proponents of telemedicine point to several other reasons for its unprecedented growth.
Privacy. While some people question whether anything shared via the Internet is truly private, some patients prefer to talk with a provider online to spare the embarrassment of a face-to-face conversation with their own physician. It the same reason why patients choose an online pharmacy for their prescriptions: They wish to be discreet.
Comfort. Some doctors report that they have better interactions with their online patients because those patients are in a familiar, comfortable environment. When you’re seeing a doctor from the comfort of your own bed or couch, you’re less likely to develop the “white coat anxiety” that affects your interactions.
More Thorough Appointments. Doctors report that when they see patients in the office, they often have about 5-10 minutes max to talk with a patient. Online services generally offer 15-minute appointments, allowing for more interaction and a more thorough exam.
Less Exposure to Germs. If you need to see a doctor for a routine follow up for a chronic condition, you probably do not want to sit in a waiting room among people with colds, flus, and other ailments. If you have a cold or flu, you probably do not want to spread your germs to others.
Drawbacks to Online Medicine
While online medicine is gaining momentum, some caution against calling it the future of medicine.
Obviously, not all ailments or illnesses can be treated online; some, like strep throat, may require testing if there is no visible infection, while injuries involving cuts, sprains, or broken bones need to be treated in person. Online consultations are best left to illnesses that have clearly defined symptoms, like the flu, or for treatment or consultations for chronic conditions.
Still, some doctors are hesitant to use telemedicine. There is the potential for error, since a diagnosis must be made based on the patient’s description of his or her symptoms and a basic visual inspection. As a result, some believe that online consults lead to overprescribing antibiotics, or more serious issues, such as infections that require more than a simple antibiotic. Also, since many telemedicine providers are not the patient’s primary care doctors, and do not have full access to the patient’s medical records, there could be other factors and complications that only make matters worse.
Despite the drawbacks, though, telemedicine continues to grow. More states are looking at laws that will allow online providers to make diagnoses and prescribe treatments online (currently, the practice is only allowed in 13 states) and more insurers are encouraging customers to use telemedicine for minor ailments and ongoing care for chronic diseases. With so much of our health care management moving online, it only makes sense that online doctor visits are the next frontier.