The (virtual) Doctor Will See You Now

By Jill | Editorial

With billions of people using the Internet as a major source of information and communication, no one should be surprised that there is a growing number of doctors going digital. Armed with the latest tablet computers, smartphones, and medtech apps, virtual doctors are catching on with insurers, patients and employers.

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NowClinic, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, is one of the companies providing medical consulting to patients online. Last year a 34-year-old Minnesota mother, Amber Young, found out how NowClinic works. Young, who was uninsured at the time, was feeling “like the walking dead” when she logged onto NowClinic’s website. She chatted with a doctor in Texas using instant messaging, Skype and her cell phone. Young was diagnosed with an upper respiratory illness and prescribed an antibiotic. Her husband picked it up at a local pharmacy. Young paid $45 for the doctor’s 10-minute “visit.”

NowClinic, which is powered by the American Well™ online care platform, started in 2010 and is now available in 22 states. Patients use the site when they’re too busy, or their doctor is too busy, to fit in an appointment. Other online users are traveling, unsure if they should go to the ER, don’t have a physician, or just need a second opinion. Online doctors treat a range of issues from acute needs to more general health questions. Ms. Young’s upper respiratory issue is among the most common complaints but digital docs treat those with urinary tract infections, abdominal pain, diarrhea, acute conjunctivitis, and strep throat. Online doctors are all primary care practitioners licensed to practice in the patient’s state—and they’re available 24/7.

Insurers and large corporations alike are promoting the use of telemedicine as a way to make doctor “visits” easier and cheaper. Digital doctors are also seen as the answer to the ever-worsening doctor shortage.

The global telemedicine business is projected to generate $27.3 billion in by 2016. Problems remain, however. Consumer watchdogs and groups like the American Academy of Physicians believe patients are getting shortchanged when they get medical advice online. In addition, many state medical boards require digital doctors to have prior doctor-patient relationship before they can practice telemedicine. Some medical boards, including those in Tennessee, New Mexico, and Nevada, have recently loosened restrictions. Whatever the case, companies like NowClinic, NowDox, and Virtuwell are treating thousands of patients online every week in the new connected healthcare world.