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Published On September 26, 2014

TECHNOLOGY

Doc on a Screen

Telehealth could be coming to a computer near you.

Retail medical clinics next to pharmacies and in discount megastores have become common sights in recent years. But now several companies are taking convenience in seeing the doctor further still, offering virtual medical visits that let users go online to consult with a physician any time, day or night. Insurers including Aetna and UnitedHealth now include this option in health plans for some employers, and Teledoc, which bills itself as the nation’s “first and largest telehealth provider,” has 8 million members. The company expects to conduct more than 200,000 online visits this year.

First-time Teladoc patients open an account on the company’s secure website or mobile app and fill out a medical history. Then users can request an appointment and a physician, licensed in their state, will get back to them in less than an hour—actually in 16 minutes, on average, according to Teledoc. Most patients opt to speak with a doctor on the phone, or they can ask for a video consultation. Like the visits at in-store clinics, these Teledoc consultations are intended to handle common, non-emergency conditions—colds, flu, allergies and rashes, not chest pains or hemorrhages. If a prescription is needed, it can be phoned to a local pharmacy or submitted electronically.

A RAND Corp. analysis of the care provided by Teledoc, published earlier this year, found that most patients are indeed treated for minor medical issues, with follow-up visits less likely than they are for patients in other settings. “Teladoc interactions did seem to resolve patients’ complaints,” says Lori Uscher-Pines, a RAND policy researcher who co-authored the study. Teladoc also appeared to expand access to care, with medical claims indicating that 20% of users had not seen any other health care provider during the year before the Teledoc visit.

Also according to the RAND study, Teledoc users are younger, healthier and live in more affluent communities than patients who typically visit a physician’s office for similar conditions. They seem to be using the service because it’s convenient and accessible. “More people are growing accustomed to using technology in their daily lives,” says Pines. “Now they’re going to expect it from the health care system, too.

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