Are telemedicine apps all they’re cracked up to be?
Whenever I start to feel like I’m coming down with a cold, my initial response is self medicate with a mixture of echinacea, Airborne, and Mucinex. More often than not, I’m usually back at full speed within a couple of days.
For the times when my cocktail of over-the-counter medicine fails me, I submit and make a visit to my family doctor for a proper diagnosis. The only problem is: I hate going to the doctor. Don’t get me wrong; I think the world of him. I’ve been going to the guy for the last 25 years for everything ranging from the common cold to more severe ailments. It’s the amount of time a doctor appointment takes out of my day that leads me to squabble.
We all know how this goes. You arrive and check in, only to wait in a waiting room full of other sick people sniffling and coughing. After anywhere from five minutes to an hour, a nurse finally calls your name and escorts you to the exam room. More waiting. In walks the doctor. Ten minutes later, you’re on the street with a diagnosis and an illegible prescription.
For awhile now I’ve wondered about telehealth, also called telemedicine, the new type of medical service that makes a doctor available at the push of a button on your smartphone. Think of it as Uber for doctors. If you’re into technology, you’ve no doubt read stories about it and wondered the same thing. (And yes, Fortune has published its fair share.)
One particular company, Doctor On Demand, claims to be the largest provider of video visits in the nation. The service offers what amounts to a brief Skype or FaceTime call with a board-certified physician located in your state who can diagnosis and prescribe medications for common ailments. (Due to varying laws and restrictions, a medical appointment isn’t possible in Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, and Louisiana.)
I recently made a mock appointment with the service so that I was able to see just what it was like to video chat with a medical professional. Am I able to get a diagnosis with less hassle than an in-person visit? Is a video appointment less satisfying?
After signing into the demo account, I was given the option to choose from three different types of appointments: medical, psychological, or a lactation consultation. I chose “medical.” The service then asked me to fill out a questionnaire detailing my illness, symptoms, and current medications. At the end, it asked me to select the pharmacy to which I’d like to have any necessary prescriptions sent.
After entering payment information and agreeing to the price for an appointment, I was then placed into a queue of patients waiting for a doctor. Each 15-minute medical appointment will set you back $40. Should you run out of time, you can opt to double the appointment for another $40. (Compare that price to an urgent-care visit for $175 or a visit to the emergency room for $300 or more, based on my insurance policy.) It took about two to three minutes for a physician to accept my request, after which Dr. Ian Tong reviewed my symptoms—patients tend to go overboard on initial questionnaires, he said—and began the appointment.
I went into the appointment admittedly skeptical of the entire exercise; staring at a screen and talking to a doctor seemed too impersonal to me. But once I was connected and talking to a doctor, the familiarity of countless FaceTime calls I’ve held with loved ones quickly came back. This was easy. The tech faded into the background.
There are still logistical hurdles to overcome for patient and doctor alike. To allow the doctor to inspect a body part—your throat, for example, or a rash—you must take a photo with your phone or tablet and send it through the app for inspection. I tried to send a photo using the desktop computer I was using, and Tong informed me that the service won’t allow it on a non-mobile device. That’s a huge frustration if you’ve spent $40 and can’t do what’s required of you.
I didn’t feel rushed at all during my appointment with Dr. Tong, though it was of course a demo and lacked the urgency or detachment that comes with a real ailment. For the common cold, it was enough time. For something more complicated, the allotted time may not have been sufficient.
Had I come to Dr. Tong with a real illness, he would have made a diagnosis after he felt he had a solid grasp on my condition. According to Doctor on Demand’s chief medical officer Pat Basu, 95 percent of appointments end with a short-term resolution, meaning no further visits (whether in person or follow-up with Doctors On Demand) are required. The remaining 5 percent are referred to the emergency room or a primary care physician for further examination.
When I spoke with Doctor On Demand’s CEO Adam Jackson, he made it clear that his service isn’t meant to replace your family doctor. (He likened it to a modern-day nurses hotline.) Still, Doctor On Demand has the ability to treat you on the spot.
After my mock appointment, I called my family doctor to see what he would think if one of his patients started using a virtual service from time to time. He wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea, but admitted that his way of thinking is probably a little old school. Still, he stopped short of shunning it altogether. His main concern? Missing clues because of the lack of a physical examination.
He’s got a point. Ever wonder why your doctor checks your spleen each time you go in complaining of a sore throat? An enlarged spleen combined with a sore throat are symptoms of mononucleosis. Have a small child with a high fever? It’s probably minor, but there’s a chance it it could be meningitis. And the way a doctor is able to tell is with a physical exam.
But there is undeniable peace of mind in knowing that, with a virtual service like Doctor On Demand, you have a doctor available at the push of a button to give professional advice when a child is sick—even if that advice results in a trip to the emergency room. Or, when you’re on a business trip with a full-blown sinus infection and desperately need medication.
I’m not looking forward to the next time I’m sick, but I do wait with great anticipation for the day when I’m able to unlock my phone, tap a few buttons, and receive medical care from the comfort of my couch. And who knows: Maybe one day I’ll find my family doctor on the other side of the screen.
“Logged In” is Fortune’s personal technology column, written by Jason Cipriani. Read it on Fortune.com each Tuesday.