Telemedicine: The doctor’s in 24/7/365

Telemedicine: The doctor’s in 24/7/365

Some years ago, our son jammed his finger during soccer practice but stoically didn’t complain until after dinner when it began to hurt from swelling. We called the pediatrician who advised that we head for a walk-in clinic or emergency room to check it out. WHOA! A trip through one of those doors is expensive for either the family or the insurance company. Being on a high deductible health plan, we opted to administer ibuprofen, ice and a splint. A follow up with the pediatrician proved it was just bruised (~$145).

A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited the following health utilization data for a one year period:

  • Number of emergency room visits: 136.3 million
  • Number of injury-related visits: 40.2 million
  • Number of visits per 100 persons: 44.5
  • Percent of visits with patient seen in fewer than 15 minutes: 27.0%
  • Percent of visits resulting in hospital admission: 11.9%

According to a 2013 article in The Atlantic magazine, had we gone to the emergency room, the cost could have exceeded $1,000 for this type of injury (sprains & strains). Fast forward to today and our options for medical assistance have been increased a thousand-fold through telemedicine. For as little as $49, we could have had that injury evaluated by a qualified professional rendering the same peace of mind without having had to leave the house. The fact that more Americans have smart phones, tablets and PCs with Facetime, Skype and other live video connections means health care providers can not only ask about symptoms but they can view the patient while doing so.

According to the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), as many as 500,000 people sought medical advice via web cam last year. Common maladies included colds, coughs, rashes, diarrhea and allergies – all common ailments that nevertheless cause concerns “in case it’s something more serious.” All of us can work ourselves into a tizzy imagining the worse when the aches or pains are new and not easily explained. Often, that kind of stress makes people feel even worse.

Why does an e-visit to the doctor make sense? Cost certainly is a big driver. Then there’s convenience. For people who are busy or have child care responsibilities, an online appointment trumps taking 2 to 3 hours off from work to get to a health care provider. Whether online or in an office, the time for evaluation will be roughly the same but the wait will be substantially shorter in a virtual setting. The ATA also indicates that outcomes “are as good as those given in traditional in-person consultations.”

Just as we check online reviews to buy products or choose restaurants, telepatients can check consumer reviews when choosing an online provider – one that may be just across town or in another time zone 24 hours a day – every day.

The ATA also notes that approximately 200 provider networks are rendering services at more than 3,500 sites in the United States. Insurance coverage for telemedicine varies, however, so check with your plan provider. That said, an out-of-pocket cost of less than $50 can provide immeasurable peace of mind in much less time. As important, you can be directed to an emergency room or walk-in clinic if it’s more serious.

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