It’s the middle of the night and your toddler wakes up with an odd rash. Your spouse is out of town, and with other children sleeping in the house, it’s not feasible to rush to urgent care or the ER. Plus, they can be pricey and might not be the best choice for the care you need. You could call your primary doctor, but sometimes it’s tough to get an appointment quickly. This is where telemedicine comes in.
Virtual doctor appointments allow patients to receive 24/7 access to board certified doctors licensed in their state for non-emergency care. Consumers can connect with doctors by phone, tablet, computer or mobile platform, for everything from colds to pink eye and lice to behavioral health.
“It’s the new house call—the new urgent care visit of today,” says Randy Parker, father of four boys and president of MDLIVE, an online network of doctors used for virtual appointments. “Many people will go inappropriately to the emergency room when they really should be going into an urgent care or primary care office. This (virtual medicine) gives them the guidance and the peace of mind to have a trusted physician,” Parker explains. “Today, we provide that level of service and quality in minutes.”
Parker founded MDLIVE in 2009 after wondering if there was a more efficient way to visit the doctor.
“Seeing my wife Ellen going to the pediatrician’s office with my children, we started to really think about how time was spent driving and then waiting to talk to a doctor to come up with a resolution,” says Parker. “From the quality of experience standpoint, there was an opportunity to use technology and innovation to disrupt a very inefficient system.”
Streaming medicine also gives parents access to doctors in other states. The Keil family in Erie uses technology to connect with a natural doctor based in Wisconsin, to help their daughter, Teagan, who has Down syndrome. “I love our regular pediatrician,” says Jennifer Keil, “but he does not see a lot of kids like our daughter Teagan.” They consult with the Wisconsin doctor, who specializes in kids with disabilities, through Skype. He is able to discuss blood work results shared by Teagan’s regular pediatrician and suggest alternative forms of treatment.
Currently, millennials who communicate virtually for most of what they do are using telemedicine the most, along with mothers. If you are ready to step into the virtual doctor’s office, here are some answers to common questions.
How do the virtual appointments work? In most cases, patients—or patients” adult caregivers—begin by creating an account and filling out a medical history, much like you would at the doctor’s office. From there, you make an appointment request. It typically takes less than an hour to hear from a doctor, and sometimes as quick as 10 minutes. Most services also allow you to choose the platform you would like to use to connect to the doctor: mobile app, phone or web.
A typical appointment begins when the patient speaks to a doctor and goes through assessment. The doctor will make a recommendation for appropriate treatment or make a referral. Secure servers allow patients to take photos, if needed, for conditions like pink eye, soar throats, insect bites and others, and send to the doctor for review. The doctor can also call in a prescription to a pharmacy. Clinical notes can be passed on to the primary care physician to maintain continuity in care.
Do I need special technology? For an appointment, you”ll need high-speed Internet, a web cam and microphone and newer operating systems such as Windows 7, Vista or XP and Mac OSX 10.6 Snow Leopard, though this might vary based on the service you use. If using a mobile device, a smartphone is required. Many of the platforms allow you to download apps through the App store and Google. Most services will allow you to test your equipment before booking an appointment.
Will my insurance cover it? Many insurance companies in Colorado are adding virtual medicine services to their plans. Some insurance plans will also reimburse patients the cost of their visit or a visit may be covered by health care reimbursement accounts such as Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA), Health Savings Accounts (HSA) or Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRA). Insurance is not necessary though for booking an online appointment through certain services, including MDLIVE, Dr. on Demand and MeMD.
How much does it cost? Visit costs vary between the services but most are typically lower than co-pay. Check with your employer’s human resources director or your health insurance provider to see if streaming medical care is a part of your plan.
What if I need to see a specialist? Specialist consultation is not available through most virtual doctor platforms currently, but this is in the works. Right now, dermatology, general medicine and psychology (mental health) are the main areas available. Doctors can make referrals on where to go for follow-up and additional testing if needed.
As the world of technology evolves, introducing tech tools like a virtual EKG and the cellular version of an otoscope—the instrument designed for ear examinations—are being developed. Live second opinions and real-time doctor-to-doctor discussions will also be available.
Although virtual medicine is growing, when in doubt, always contact your primary care doctor. “Virtual care does not take the place of an in-person visit, but it can provide the data and analytics that provide for better care,” says Parker. “I do see a time in the future where everyone has their own virtual physician in networks, in conjunction with a physical practice.”
Courtney Johnson is a Colorado-based freelance writer, sports photographer and mom to a young daughter.