Monday, March 10, 2014

Your Online Doctor Will See You Now

Various healthcare entrepreneurs hope to make the online doctor visit an integral part of the healthcare delivery system, particularly when it comes to treating common, minor health conditions.

The basis for online doctoring comes from telemedicine, which has been practiced for over 20 years.  According to the American Telemedicine Association, over 50% of U.S. hospitals use some form of telemedicine and that within the U.S. one can find about 3,500 telemedicine service sites and close to 200 telemedicine networks.  Through these telemedicine networks, physicians and other healthcare providers have been providing medical consultations and remote monitoring services for many years now.

While virtual doctoring has actually been around for more than a decade, patient access to any such service was basically dependent on (a) the patient's doctor or healthcare provider participating in a telemedicine service and (b) that provider agreeing to work with the patient on a telemedicine basis.  A consumer driven process, where a patient can get a medical consultation and a real treatment plan over the internet, rather than a private network, is a more recent development.   Today one can find a number of entrepreneurial companies pushing the envelope on the online doctoring front.  MeMD and American Well, for example, are among a number of young companies offering medical consultations and treatment plans through the internet.

The basic model for these companies is to facilitate an online webcam consultation between a user and a licensed, certified healthcare practitioner in the user's state of residence.  Practitioners are typically a physician, but some companies may also use physician assistants or nurse practitioners who are licensed in the user's state of residence to provide primary care medical services.

By design, these online doctor models restrict their service to common, minor health conditions that can be safely diagnosed and treated in a virtual environment.  The common cold, the flu, allergies, bronchitis, earaches, sinus infections, urinary tract infections, pink eye, and sore throats are among the many minor health conditions treated by these online doctor organizations.  These online doctor visits normally run 5 to 15 minutes, after which the patient is issued a treatment plan.  If the treatment plan requires prescription medications, e-prescriptions are transmitted to the user's local pharmacy where they can be picked up and paid for by the user.  While prescriptions are issued when needed, most online doctor services typically will not issue a prescription for any drug on the DEA Controlled Substances list and may not issue scripts for certain elective medications, like those used to treat erectile dysfunction, hair loss and obesity.

These new online doctor services are usually available on a 24/7 basis.  And the cost for an online doctor visit and a personalized treatment plan?  In the case of both MeMD and American Well, less than $50 per consultation, excluding prescription costs billed by that users local pharmacy .  No taking time off from work to have your minor health condition treated.  No insufferable waits at a doctor's office.  Prescriptions, if needed, are sent electronically to your local pharmacy for fulfillment.  Compared to a regular office visit, an online doctor visit is way faster, way more convenient and, in many cases, less expensive too.

Right now we are in the early stages of the online doctor visit.  From experience with telemedicine, it is known that many minor health conditions can be effectively treated in a virtual environment.  Considering ongoing advances in internet, mobile and diagnostic technologies, the types of conditions that can be effectively treated in a virtual environment will undoubtedly grow in the future.

In our next post we will take a look at another company that is pushing the online doctor visit envelope a bit further.








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