Online shopping, telecommuting, online courses, video conferencing, online dating. We can almost do everything over the Internet these days. Including health care. I mean, if we can have health apps on our iPhone, why can’t we consult our doctors online?
Virtual doctor’s practices or e-practices have been around for a while even if you haven’t heard about them. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) defines telemedicine as “the use of telecommunications technology for medical diagnostic, monitoring, and therapeutic purposes when distance separates the users.” It was originally meant to cater to underserved populations such as those in rural and remote areas. As early as 2000 the AHRQ identified 455 temedecine programs worldwide, 362 of which were based in the US.
However, nowadays, with the advent of multimedia technology, telemedicine and virtual practices is for everybody, anytime, anywhere.
One of the very first to popularize e-medicine was HelloHealth which was set up about 3 years ago by innovative young doctors. HelloHealth is not completely virtual. It does have a physical entity in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York but it markets its doctors as “your friendly 21st doctors in the neighborhood” as they are basically available from everywhere.
Here is how an e-practice such as HelloHealth works: you register in the HelloHealth website. You find a physician. You make an appointment online. You consult a doctor, by phone, by email or by video chats. The HelloHealth website also doubles as a social media site with a Facebook-like platform.
So what makes e-practices so popular? Well, they have several major advantages over your brick-and-mortar practice:
Like most online services, virtual practices have less overhead than their real counterparts. E-practices claim they charge less but this may not always be true.
No driving or commuting. No queues or long waits in the waiting room. No going back for prescription refills. Everything’s done remote. For the busy, on-the-go alpha trendsetter, e-practice is the way to go.
Some patients prefer the anonymity that e-consultations offer. In fact, there is probably a generation of patients out there who are more comfortable telling their symptoms to a video screen than to a flesh-and-blood health professional.
Check this video about virtual doctors on RedOrbit.
Like in the case of many innovations, telemedicine and e-practice come with their share of caveats. Some of them are:
- Scams and lack of regulations
Not all those who claim to be virtual practices are what they claim to be. Make sure that you go for the bona fide one. Scams abound on the Internet and it is especially get away with a health fraud when the distance between patient and health practitioner is big. For example, check out this virtual doctor’s office which gives away unlimited number of printable doctor’s excuse notes as part of their membership package. These notes are used by many to excuse themselves from work or school. Now, can you trust a clinic like that?
- Not everything can be done online
Even practicing virtual doctors agree that not everything can be done online. Dr. Michael Good, a family practitioner from Connecticut tells CBS the when’s and when not’s to online consultation:
Good for online consultation: “Prescription refills, test results, appointments and referrals. Online consultations should be for the kind of things that you almost wonder if it is worth taking time off from work to go to the doctor’s office. I have college students who have done follow-up visits online when they are out of state at school, which saves their parents some big travel bills.”
Not good for online consultation: “Chest pain, shortness of breath and abdominal pain. It should not be used for anything that could be dangerous. Anything that needs immediate attention or requires careful evaluation to rule out something dangerous should not be handled online. We have warnings all over the site telling patients that the system should be used for routine, non-urgent questions and problems.”