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With New Mobile Apps, the Doctor Is on Duty

The Exchange
Can a Smartphone Do What Your Doctor Does? (ABC News)

“The doctor will see you now” may no longer be a phrase you hear only at your physician’s office, as a small but growing number of mobile apps hit the market offering doctor calls via smartphones.

Starting on Tuesday, the app Doctor on Demand will allow people in 15 states to talk live via videoconference to a licensed physician for $40 per call. That follows the app American Well, which debuted in October and offers virtual doctor visits by phone for $49 in 44 states.

The apps can help people get advice, and even a prescription, for run-of-the-mill health problems such as the common cold, a urinary tract infection or skin rash. The price is comparable to an insurance co-payment and less than what people without coverage for such visits pay, not to mention far less than the cost of a trip to the emergency room. Patients can use money from a healthcare savings or flexible spending account.

“This is a way to expand and improve patient access to medical care,” says Dr. Pat Basu, chief medical officer at Doctor on Demand and a former White House Fellow.

There could be a sizable audience for this kind of mobile health app. Over half of the 1 billion ambulatory care visits a year are to general practitioners, internists and pediatricians, and among the most common ailments reported were cough, back pain and skin rashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Telemedicine has mostly been used in rural areas where people live far from hospitals and doctors, but the convenience of the new apps could make the concept more attractive. In the Doctor on Demand app, for example, a patient can stay home as they upload photos for the doctor and link to a nearby pharmacy for prescriptions.

Still, not everyone is comfortable talking to a doctor over a video chat. According to a survey this year by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, only 52% of respondents said they’d be willing to consult with their doctor via a video link. And that includes people wanting to see their current primary care doctor, who is unlikely to be available on one of the app networks. More people, 62%, said they were comfortable using email or text to address health concerns with their doctor.

Worries about privacy and security when using mobile health apps bothered 35%, and 31% said such apps were only suitable for fitness and wellness, not managing serious health issues.

The apps have to abide by the primary federal law on healthcare privacy, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, as well as state regulations on telemedicine. The apps can't be used by people in states where the networks don't have licensed physicians online.

“There are a lot of guidelines and regulations you have to pay attention to,” says Adam Jackson, co-founder and CEO.

Patients who value the convenience may not perceive all that's gone on behind the scenes to enable the app to meet all the telemedicine rules and privacy laws, not to mention recruiting a nationwide network of licensed practitioners. It's the direct connection to a doctor that's the draw.