Video doctor appointments are emerging as a more convenient way to diagnose and treat minor ailments, but skeptics caution there’s no substitute for the old-fashioned office visit.
Three times a week, Dr. Joseph Olson dons his white coat, but he doesn’t leave his home in Storden, Minn. Instead, he fires up his tablet, peers into the camera and starts “seeing” patients via real-time video chat.
On the other end of the Internet connection are people who have logged on for the virtual visit through their smartphones or tablets. One by one, Olson examines them — diagnosing mostly minor ailments such as sinus infections, skin rashes and sprains.
Olson works for “Doctor on Demand,” a mobile app that started four months ago and is now in 40 states, with 1,000 doctors on staff. A 15-minute video session costs $40.
The app is part of an emerging health-care sector: doctors using technology to meet patients on their timetables. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota has offered video chats for a couple of years and the Mayo Clinic has dabbled in the emerging technology with a pilot program for expectant mothers.
“We expect that it will be a routine process for someone to visit with a doctor for telemedicine through our online care as we grow into the future,” said Matt Marek, vice president of product and marketing for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.
The doc-in-the-box concept has raised questions about the quality of care. And even advocates for virtual exams say they work best for routine cases and that, when it comes to complicated diagnosis and treatment, there’s no substitute for a doctor’s skilled touch.
But the convenience video exams offer is compelling, especially since getting an appointment with a doctor — or even reaching one on the phone for a quick consult — can be difficult and time-consuming.
That’s why Rochester mom Kate Bomgaars has done Skype visits with her Mayo doctor.
“Especially in the wintertime, having children, to pack them up and take them in the car, park, get them all out of the car, drag everything upstairs and into the office, and wait around for an office visit — that’s a whole hour production just to get there,” said Bomgaars. “To have communication in the living room, it saves everybody a lot of time and energy.”
Emergency screen time
Blue Cross and Blue Shield offers its service, which costs about the same as Doctor on Demand, to patients through their personal computers and through kiosks at some of the employers it insures.
Paloma Lang, of Warroad, Minn., used the company’s Online Care Anywhere recently in a pinch.
Her granddaughter Mackenna, 2, had an earache. Lang’s daughter was facing a half-hour drive to the doctor’s office, and still more time waiting to see a doctor. Lang suggested that Mackenna come with her mother to Lang’s company, Marvin Windows, where a kiosk had just been installed to connect with a doctor via video chat.
Within minutes, a doctor appeared on the screen.
Mackenna’s mother used a thermometer and blood pressure cuff attached to the kiosk to take Mackenna’s vitals. There was even an autoscope tool with a camera attached to look into her ears.
The diagnosis: a slight viral infection that just needed time to run its course.
“I was pretty pleased with how quick it went, that we were able to speak with a live person,” Lang said, “and that we were able to actually look inside her ear and that the doctor could see what we saw. It’s just such a time saver.”
For Bomgaars, online video chats helped keep her connected with her doctor throughout her pregnancy with her first child.