Your “Virtual” Doctor: The Rise of App Technology in Health Care

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Advances in technology, such as video chat and live streaming apps, are making it easier for people to keep in touch, no matter where they are. But what happens when we apply these technological advances to the very personal act of medical care? How do we feel about visiting with our health care providers virtually – through a phone, tablet or computer screen – instead of face-to-face in the traditional way? Let’s take a closer look.

ONLINE HEALTH CARE, OR YOUR “VIRTUAL” DOCTOR

The rise of app technology has led to the development of new cybermedicine apps that allow patients to interact with doctors online. These apps operate much like urgent care centers and walk-in clinics by making it possible for patients to receive medical care outside of regular office hours or without having to set up appointments beforehand. All patients have to do is open one of these apps and connect with an available, real life doctor in order to have medical issues diagnosed and treated.

With the near-ubiquitous use of smartphones – or cameras on phones, at a minimum – doctors are able to check for a wide range of symptoms. For example, patients might be asked to hold their smartphone or tablet up to their eye or near their throat, so doctors can look for signs of an infection or illness.

One app, HealthTap, says it has 72,000 doctors on call available to subscribers 24/7, 365 days a year. You can share photos, test results and speak live with a doctor all via your smartphone, web browser or telephone from anywhere in the world. There are different levels of plans available – it comes at a cost, of course – and doctors are able to write prescriptions and make referrals, depending on the level of care you choose.

Some expect patient demand for virtual health care to increase in coming years due to several factors, including the expansion of insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act, an aging population, the increase of chronic diseases and the primary physician shortage, according to advocates of this technology at CVS Health.

BENEFITS OF VIRTUAL DOCTOR VISITS

Virtual doctor visits offer advantages for both doctors and patients. Some of the pros include:

  • Early treatment. The convenience of these visits increases the chance of patients seeking treatment early instead of waiting for their condition to get worse, which can help save on health care costs.
  • Convenience. Patients can visit with a doctor online at convenient times from almost any location rather than having to schedule appointments during work hours.

Conversely, the main concern with virtual visits seems to be that some patients might overuse them and seek treatment for any minor medical issue they experience, which could end up costing insurance companies more money. For now, the benefits of these visits outweigh the potential risks.

VIRTUAL VISITS GOING MAINSTREAM

But these virtual doctor visits – or telehealth, as some are calling the trend – aren’t just available to the wealthy who can most afford them.  Health care giants CVS, Walgreens and United Healthcare will soon offer them to its customers, too.

On-every-corner pharmacy giant CVS Health announced in August that it was working with three different telehealth companies to increase patients’ access to doctors. The telehealth partners will be able to provide consultations both remotely via the Internet and over the phone, CVS says. CVS will refer patients to the telehealth partners and the partners will be able to refer patients to CVS’s MinuteClinic brand, when appropriate. The launch is planned for the fourth quarter of 2015 following a successful trial run that ended in June.

Similarly, Walgreens began testing virtual doctor visits in December 2014 after partnering with MDLive. Patients can use the store’s PharmacyChat feature, available on the Walgreen’s app, to meet with a doctor online. While this service is only available in a couple of states so far, it could expand to other states if it proves to be successful.

In April 2015, United Healthcare announced coverage for virtual doctor visits through a few apps, including Doctor on Demand, Amwell and NowClinic. The insurance provider plans on being able to cover at least part of the cost of these visits for around 20 million patients by 2016.

Although virtual doctor visits are already taking place, they are not yet a common or accepted way for health care to happen, as most of us have not yet seen these apps in action and not all conditions can be diagnosed and treated online.

As always, nurses will still be very much in demand — perhaps even more so as they help new users navigate the ins and outs of these virtual systems. The good news is that the advent of this exciting new technology makes this a great time to pursue a career in nursing.

Excited about a career in nursing? Let Concorde show you the way. Contact us today to learn more about our programs in health care.

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