- Annie Internicola
For a busy working mom like Kieran Geffert, the thought of having access to a doctor 24/7 via Facetime video on her phone was very intriguing. "I had read about how telemedicine was revolutionizing healthcare and people's access to it," she says. So when she got an email about a year ago from her HR office at work saying that her company, CBS Corporation in San Francisco, was offering the telemedicine service Doctor on Demand, she downloaded the app right away and linked it to her insurance. "Even though I was a little skeptical about how it would work, I thought, 'I'll have it all ready to go, should I need it.' I'm all about preventive medicine and being on top of things." A couple of months later, her teenage son developed a suspicious blister inside his lip. "It was bothering him and it just kind of looked funny. I thought, 'Well, let's try Doctor on Demand.'"
Geffert had no idea what to expect when she used the app to request an MD. "It was the weekend, and I thought it would be a long wait—maybe the doctor was biking up Mount Tam?" But within less than a minute she and her son were Facetiming with a physician in a white coat. She was able to use the camera on her phone to show him the blister on her son's mouth. Suspecting a virus, the doctor delivered a prescription electronically to her local pharmacy, which she picked up about 15 minutes later. "My son started on the medicine, and in two days the blister was gone." Impressed by the ease and speed of the experience—and the handy avoidance of scheduling an appointment, driving to a doctor's office, and sitting in a crowded, potentially germ-filled waiting room—Geffert used Doctor on Demand three more times over the next year, including once to get steroids for a case of poison oak that had gone systemic. She Facetimed with a doctor as she was getting ready for work and was able to pick up the prescription when the pharmacy opened. "I was able to do it all by multitasking, and it didn't take any time out of my day. It was great."
Telemedicine, or telehealth—in which care is transmitted from providers to patients via telecommunications technology—is beginning to take off. One of the most game-changing trends in healthcare today, telemedicine is expected to reach seven million patient users by 2018, up from 350,000 users in 2013, according to a report by IHS Technology. "There are multiple signs that telemedicine's time is coming, if not here," says Ian Tong, MD, chief medical officer for Doctor on Demand. "One is that we're seeing an evolution of patient behavior: Patients are coming to us and asking us to be able to take care of more complex problems. So there's an appetite for more." Tong adds that the adoption of telemedicine regulations and guidelines have increased nationwide. "More states have established more sophisticated guidelines around what they want to see a telemedicine program or provider be able to achieve in their platform and in their offering to patients."
All told, this mode of care is still in its infancy; many industry analysts believe that its most significant growth will happen in the next five to ten years. "It's new, and so there's some hesitation as to what is achievable over telemedicine," says Ross Friedberg, general counsel for Doctor on Demand. "People wonder, can a physician provide me with good care this way? We're so used to going to a doctor's office and getting a physical exam. It takes a while for people's attitudes to change as they get used to something new, especially when it comes to something as intimate as the doctor-patient relationship. But once people experience telemedicine, they discover its value and what can be achieved."
Patients and caregivers stand to gain from the virtual experience. "Telemedicine is a more affordable healthcare option, and a lot more accessible," says Friedberg. Not just for the privileged, telemedicine visits are often more affordable than urgent care, ranging from $0 when covered by insurance to $75 out of pocket, with most Doctor on Demand visits averaging about $49 (or more for mental-health counseling). For medical providers, it can lower overhead and offer more flexibility than an office or hospital-based practice. It can also help address much of what is wrong with our medical system today. "Part of the reason we exist is because our healthcare system is not working," says Friedberg. "It's become too expensive and disconnected from the needs of patients. When people start using telemedicine, if it's a good program, they keep using it."