The New Way to See Your Doctor in Just Minutes

Should you use a digital doctor? We take a look at the pros and cons of this new healthcare option.

Need a doctor to look at that rash or check out that cough? There’s an app for that.

Whether you want to avoid the hassle of trying to get an appointment or you catch a bug over a weekend or on a business trip, a slew of new telehealth apps allow you to make a virtual face-to-face appointment with a board-certified doctor to get a diagnosis, treatment plan and even prescriptions. Here’s what you need to know before you take the plunge with a digital doc.

Why now? Abha Agrawal, M.D., chief clinical operations officer at IKS Health, believes that telemedicine’s surge in popularity is due to its placement at the intersection of health care trends. “You have patients who previously couldn’t afford insurance now accessing care,” she says. But, at the same time, there’s a shortage of primary care physicians, and they all have limited availability.

Benefits of a Digital Doctor

There are a growing number of benefits of choosing a virtual doctor visit over an in-person one, the biggest of which is time. “The national average wait time to see a primary care physician is three weeks,” says Ian Tong, M.D., chief medical officer for the app Doctor On Demand. “The average wait time to see a Doctor On Demand board-certified physician is just three minutes.”

And on weekends too. Or at 11 p.m. at night. With a telehealth app, patients can get nearly immediate access to a medical professional 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Plus, they don’t have to worry about the time it takes to commute to a doctor’s office or clinic or spend time hanging out in a waiting room with other sick people.

A digital doctor app can also be a lot more affordable. Many of the apps charge a flat-fee rate for their services, which are often much less than an urgent care or ER visit and sometimes even less than insurance co-pays. Better yet, many insurance plans are now covering part or even all of the costs of these virtual doctor visits.

There are benefits for doctors too, including flexible work hours and the ability to “see” patients out of the office. “The ability to travel or work remotely is one of the primary reasons I have taken up a virtual practice,” says Dr. Agrawal. When the visit requires, she then refers patients to a physician they can visit in person.

Even still, she says, “My best estimate is that less than 10 percent of the time do the virtual visits require an in-person examination, additional X-rays or labs or emergency response.” Plus, unlike a traditional office visit that requires doctors to block out a certain amount of time for each patient, a telehealth app allows doctors to spend as much — or as little — time as each individual case requires.

When to Use Telehealth Programs

Digital doctor apps do a lot more than just answer your questions about that rash (though they can do that too). Since doctors can assess symptoms, order labs and even provide prescriptions, there is a wide range of conditions and symptoms that a digital doctor can assess and treat.

“[Our] physicians can treat a host of common illnesses quickly and effectively through a video visit,” explains Tong. Topping the list of the most common ailments are cold and flu symptoms, sore throat, urinary tract infections, skin issues like rashes and acne, pink eye, diarrhea and vomiting. Many apps can also address mental-health issues, providing timely support for individuals dealing with stress, anxiety, depression or relationship issues.

This kind of digital technology is also becoming increasingly valuable for the maintenance of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, congestive heart failure and others, says Agrawal.

“In these instances, real-time diagnostic data and telemedicine ‘face time’ could mean the difference between a high-risk patient being hospitalized or going to an ER or staying home simply by adjusting medications or scheduling a regular doctor appointment on information obtained via a digital connection.”

How to Choose a Digital Doctor App

Before you download a telehealth app, you’ll want to do your homework to find a good fit.

1. Check to see if your primary doctor has an app that he or she is connected with. Using a platform that’s associated with your health insurance or doctor’s office can make getting labs, in-office appointments or prescriptions even easier. It also may make the flat-rate fee cheaper if covered by your health insurance.

2. Find an app that fits your needs. Some digital health apps like HealthTap treat a broad range of concerns while serving niche markets. For example, Maven specializes in women’s issues and can connect you with experts like lactation consultants, mental-health specialists, nutritionists or OB/GYNs, while other apps like Spruce focus exclusively on skin concerns including, rashes, eczema, acne and aging.

3. Research the app’s privacy safeguards. Just like your Facebook page or email account, any digital portal is potentially open to hackers. “HIPPA and cybersecurity are more critical to consider than ever before,” says Agrawal. Ensure that the app uses file encryption to protect your information and learn whether they store or erase personal information after your virtual visit.

“Virtual medicine allows increased accessibility to primary care physicians in many instances where a physician wouldn’t have had clinical hours,” says Agrawal. Combining convenience, affordability and speed, digital doctor apps now provide patients with an increasingly attractive way to deal with both chronic and one-time health concerns — all from the comfort of the couch.