The last thing many people feel like doing when they're sick is trying to squeeze into a doctor's busy schedule and hoof it to the doctor's office, where they are likely to spend more time in the waiting room than the exam room. Enter telemedicine, which lets patients with minor ailments connect with doctors over the phone or by video conference within minutes. The practice is catching on, although there are no firm estimates about how much patients are spending on this form of medical care.
Telehealth networks that treat patients (as opposed to doctors who consult remotely with other doctors) typically include primary care physicians who can virtually treat common and low-level illnesses. Many also arrange on-call virtual consultations with internists, pediatricians, dermatologists, mental health experts, and the like. Some specialized physicians include telemedicine in their practices to monitor and advise patients who may not be able to reach them.
The approach has many advantages:
For people whose workday doesn't coincide with the doctor's usual 9-to-5, Monday-Friday schedule, the ability to ask a doctor online about a problem is a welcome alternative. Telemedicine services also can deal with illnesses that strike on a weekend or late evening.
Time is money, as the saying goes, and few people enjoy the interminable wait in a busy doctor's office (never mind being exposed to others' illnesses). Telehealth services let patients call from anywhere and quickly consult with a doctor.
Demand for physicians is outpacing supply, according to a study by the Association of American Medical Colleges. Trying to make an appointment with a recommended doctor only to be told she or he isn't accepting new patients or the wait time is at least a month is common in many locales. And for the housebound or people who live in remote areas, traveling to a medical practitioner can be a hardship. An online doctor visit ensures patients receive medical care and advice in a timely fashion.
Is Telemedicine Cheaper?
For patients with insurance, many policies cover at least part of the cost of contacting a doctor online, largely because the technology saves time and money for all parties. Currently more than half the states require insurance providers to cover virtual doctor visits while the remainder let the insurer decide whether to cover this service. The cost of connecting with a doctor electronically may be the same as the insurance copay or less, depending on the plan.
For anyone without insurance coverage, telemedicine is far cheaper than paying the full cost for an office visit. A study released by Alliance for Connected Care estimates the average cost of a telehealth "visit" at $40 to $50 compared with $136 to $176 for an office visit.
Cheapism.com surveyed pricing at several telemedicine companies (ranked among the best by the consumer health information site Healthline) and found a similar range of costs. Teladoc, one of the first telemedicine providers, offers 24/7 consultations with board-certified doctors for $40 or less. Doctor on Demand charges $40 to speak with a doctor anytime, and AmWell connects patients to doctors within their state at an average cost of about $49 for a consultation. Ringadoc may be the best deal for patients with a tendency toward hypochondria: a flat rate of $69 a month to speak with a doctor as much as you want.
At the very least, telemedicine saves the hassle and expense of last-resort emergency room and urgent care visits for relatively minor ailments such as colds, sinusitis, urinary tract infections, and mild fevers. Still, it's important to keep in mind the cons of calling on an online doctor.
Physical exams aren't possible.
Virtual medical care is fast and convenient for relatively minor health concerns. If the matter requires a physical exam -- for a broken bone, rash, or lump, say -- telemedicine is no substitute for face-to-face interaction in a medical setting.
A traditional copay may be cheaper.
Some telemedicine providers charge a convenience fee above and beyond the copay, even for patients with excellent health insurance benefits. Patients should always assess whether a remote or in-person consultation makes more sense financially (and health-wise).
Consistency is not a sure thing.
Some telemedicine companies shuffle patients among available physicians who may not know a patient's history or have all the pertinent information from previous visits. Likewise, patients may not have the opportunity to request a particular doctor on future virtual visits. That's why it pays to choose a telemedicine company carefully.
Some insurance companies and self-funded health plans contract with virtual care networks and let plan participants choose which one, or which physician, to contact. People without such coverage can choose among the many telehealth platforms out there. Regardless, always check the fees and the range of medical specialties and services before setting up an account and seeking care.