The future is here!
To treat a recent infection*, I consulted with a medical professional using MY SMARTPHONE.
I downloaded an app, inserted my info and a credit card number, fired up the app and I was soon talking to a medical professional. The bottom half of the screen was her, in her office (headset on and credentials of some sort, framed on the wall behind her) while the top half of the screen was me-- from the nose up. We chatted for about six minutes and, about two hours later, I was driving home with a 7-day course of antibiotics (purchased at Walmart for $3.54).
BTW: The consultation cost me $10. And that's not a typo. Total: $13.54, for something that would normally cost me $63.54 ($60 is the cash price I paid to see my favorite G.P., last time I visited him, about two years ago.)
The age of telemedicine has arrived!
Actually, it's been here for a while, but it's been niche-y. Now, as more insurers look favorably upon the practice, more patients will be encouraged and incentivized to use "real-time interactive" medical consultations, as I just did.
With a roll of the eyese and a shake of the head, we will recall these days, when we would hop in a car-- with a fever or a rash or an earache-- and drive to a specific location to meet with a doctor in order to have our ailments diagnosed. We will think ourselves fools for sitting with a bunch of other sick people in a small room, waiting forever for a five-minute consultation with a general practitioner. Our current system for the delivery of routine medical advice and treatment will be seen-- in a fairly short amount of time, I predict-- as obviously nonsensical and wildly impractical!
Check out the list of maladies that can be safely disposed of with a short chat over the internet, from the privacy of your home or office:
Eye Infection/Sty/Pink Eye
Fever and Chills
Insect or Spider Bites
Now imagine wind whistling through the typical ER of the future, as all those folks with sunburn or poison ivy or a stomach ache are able to take care of their (relatively) minor medical problems via a short Q & A conducted over the iPhone! How lonely will your doctor's waiting room be when all the sniffling, sneezing, hacking, scratching and moaning patients just stay home?
How can we calculate the savings to be had? Patients seeking help for a broken toe will no longer inhabit a common germosphere with the dude with swine flu or the oozing toddler!
One telemedicine service even has an option to send a note to your boss if you have to call in sick!
It makes sense for an insurer to adopt such innovations. Even old school technology can help the bottom line and streamline care! There's a number on the back of my insurance card that connects me-- via voice only-- to an "advice nurse." When I recently stepped on a bark scorpion, she and the Poison Control folks gave me the best damned advice anyone with a scorpion sting could get. And I avoided a trip to the ER and saved everyone a ton of money! With my half-million-dollar deductible, I like to avoid the emergency room if I can!
Is there a downside? Of course there is.
A 2014 Las Vegas Review-Journal article explained how the two largest health insurers in Nevada had each embraced a telemedicine provider,. After several paragraphs of the positives, the paper cited "rumblings of dissatisfaction," the most obvious one of which is that internet medical consultations might “sacrifice quality of care for cost.” I am fairly certain that the many companies that offer telemedicine apps have figured out a way of maintaining quality-- and probably seek feedback from patients every chance they can. If they aren't-- and if quality slides-- they'll vanish.
Another worry is how remote doctoring might affect "continuity of care," (Buzzword Alert!), but this just means that you can't monitor conditions like diabetes without a direct, human-to-human connection and regular and thorough examinations and testing. This is not so much a downside as much as a common sense delineation of the limitations of practicing medicine through the net. The list above is rather narrow in the grand scheme of things when one considers all the things that can go wrong with the human body. But it still covers a lot. However, for the time being at least, such ailments as diabetes or heart problems should be dealt with using traditional methods.
Similarly, telemedicine can't diagnose or treat most disorders that might require a sample (stool, urine, earwax, mysterious phlegm, etc.), but again, that's common sense, and, again, mad scientists in Cupertino or Taipei are no doubt feverishly working on he Apple iPhone Earwax Analysis Attachment, soon to be available at Walmart for $19.99 ($29.99 with the lighted otoscope attachment to the attachment).
Also cited are misdiagnosis, a disconnect between doctor and patient, willy-nilly prescription of antibiotics, etc. But these are always a danger, with or without the "tele-" part. Compared to the advantages, these are minor complaints. Even annoying complaints! Who doesn't have a misdiagnosis-by-a-real-doctor story? We're up to our tympanic membranes in prescription medicine abuse stories. There's room for improvement!
For the most part, Americans are happy with the treatment they get with their doctors, and face-to-face meetings mean a lot. Patient surveys for traditional office visits give high marks for real doctors-- 3.72 out of 4 in one Gallup poll. But there are no doubt quite a few folks who might not be in love with their doc (or their doc's hours). And we've heard horror stories that most G.P.'s are booked three to six months in advance! A quick, inexpensive teleconference using the Kindle Fire is exactly how George Jetson might handle it!
* No. It is not gonorrhea.