House Calls Returning with Telemedicine

Telemedicine is reviving house calls -- both virtual and actual -- by medical professionals.
Telemedicine is reviving house calls — both virtual and actual — by medical professionals.

For most Americans today, house calls by doctors are associated with the distant past and represent an era that few people under the age of 50 or 60 can recall. For those of us old enough to remember the days when doctors actually paid an in-person visit to a patient’s home, it was a service that most of us figured had disappeared for good.

However, the spectacular growth in telemedicine appears to be bringing back house calls, at least figuratively, in the form of video consultations between physicians and their patients who need not leave the comfort of their home.

Real House Calls

Actually, a couple of fledgling telemedicine operations — available only in a handful of cities at this time — are reviving in-person house visits for those who can afford to pay for the service. Although these services, provided through apps called Heal and Pager, are limited in scope geographically at the moment, their developers are already mapping plans to expand into other cities within the foreseeable future. More about Heal and Pager a bit later.

However, for the vast majority of Americans, consulting with a doctor about routine health concerns via videoconferencing is already a reality that can be accessed through a number of local and nationwide computer-based services. While urgent health issues are best directed to the nearest hospital emergency room, those of us worried about a persistent head cold, skin rash, nausea, or urinary tract infection can consult with a health professional via a computer, tablet, or smart phone.

What Is Telemedicine?

In its simplest possible terms, telemedicine encompasses all interactions between doctor and patient that are conducted via electronic means, such as telephone, email, or video consultation. It also refers to the increasing digitization of all medical records, which means that an emergency physician treating you for a ski accident at Aspen can electronically access your medical history within minutes.

The basics of telemedicine have been around for quite a while, particularly in its more primitive forms. However, in the last few years the concept has taken off in a big way as a means to help meet the widening gap between the demand for health care services and the supply of health professional to provide such services.

Impact of Obamacare

Passage of the Affordable Care Act, known to most as Obamacare, put health care services within the financial reach of millions who previously could not afford them and only sought out medical care when health problems became true emergencies. In doing so, it sharply increased the demand for health care services even as the number of health professionals was growing at a much slower rate.

Telemedicine puts video consultations with board-certified physicians within the financial reach of most Americans.
Telemedicine puts video consultations with board-certified physicians within the financial reach of most Americans.

Telemedicine can help bridge the growing gap between supply and demand by offering more cost-effective solutions to routine health care concerns and cutting down sharply on unnecessary trips to the doctor’s office or emergency room. At the same time, by offering an alternative to these expensive visits to the doctor or hospital, telemedicine can whittle down some of the overall costs for health care.

Doctor on Demand

Typical of the telemedicine providers offering video consultation with board-certified physicians and other health professionals is San Francisco-based Doctor on Demand. Health consumers who want to consult with a doctor can avail themselves of Doctor on Demand’s services by requesting a video consultation through the service’s website or via apps that can be downloaded to your tablet or smart phone. These apps are available for smart phones and tablets running iOS or Android operating systems.

In addition to video consultations with licensed physicians, Doctor on Demand can arrange for video visits with board-certified pediatricians, psychologists, and lactation specialists. Doctor on Demand provides the telemedicine platform that health consumers can use to access “licensed physicians practicing within a group of independently owned professional practices collectively known as ‘Doctor on Demand Professionals.’”

Cost for Video Visit

A video visit with one of the family physicians or pediatricians available through Doctor on Demand will set you back $40. Ailments routinely treated via video visits include cold and flu, sore throat, diarrhea and vomiting, eye conditions, urinary tract infections, minor sports injuries, and skin issues, including rashes.

To consult with one of the psychologists available through Doctor on Demand, you will pay $50 for a 25-minute session or $95 for a 50-minute session. New mothers having breastfeeding problems can set up a 25-minute session with a lactation specialist for $40 or $70 for a 50-minute session.

Psychologists available through Doctor on Demand treat a variety of issues, including stress and anxiety, depression, mood changes, relationship issues, obsessions and compulsions, trauma and loss, alcohol and tobacco addictions, and eating problems.

Using the technology of telemedicine, the elderly woman takes a blood pressure reading that is simultaneously transmitted to her doctor.
Using the technology of telemedicine, the elderly woman takes a blood pressure reading that is simultaneously transmitted to her doctor.

Teladoc Services

Another telemedicine provider that offers services in most of the United States is Teladoc, which was founded in 2002. It offers access to American physicians who are board-certified in family medicine, internal medicine, and/or pediatrics. Doctors available through Teladoc can provide a video or telephone consultation within minutes after you’ve filed a request for one.

Teladoc’s founders targeted what they saw as three of the health care industry’s most pressing issues:

  • Access: Patients wait days, weeks, and even months to see a doctor about routine health concerns or are forced to visit a hospital emergency room if the issue seems to be more pressing. Teladoc addresses this issue by providing access to medical professionals 24/7 all year.
  • Cost: With health insurance premiums, out-of-pocket expenses, and health care costs increasing much more rapidly than the annual inflation rate, Teladoc aims to provide expert medical advice at a fraction of the cost charged for urgent care and visits to the emergency room.
  • Quality: Teladoc boasts that it improves access to reasonably priced health care without sacrificing quality. “We use the strictest quality processes and clinical protocols for our national network of U.S. board-certified physicians.”

Doctor on Demand and Teladoc are just two of the many telemedicine providers that can offer video consultations with licensed physicians for a fraction of what you might pay for a visit to the doctor’s office or a trip to the local hospital ER. We’ve profiled them because they are among the largest providers of these services and offer an example of what telemedicine has to offer.

Heal and Pager

If you really would like to have a doctor pay a visit to you at home, Heal and Pager are services that can make that happen. However, as previously mentioned, they are currently available in just a few cities, although both have plans to expand to other major metro areas.

Heal, based in Los Angeles, can arrange house calls for patients in both L.A. and San Francisco. However, they hope to bring their service to a number of other cities before the end of the year. Heal offers house calls for $99 a visit and will return that fee if the patient isn’t 100 percent satisfied.

Available only in New York City at this time, Pager can arrange a first-time doctor’s visit to your home for the special introductory price of only $50. If needed, subsequent visits by the doctor are priced at $200 per house call and include on-site testing, treatments, surgical sutures, and the first dose of most prescription drugs.

Don Amerman is a freelance author who writes extensively about a wide array of nutrition and health-related topics.

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