Impatient

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Doctor consultation apps: Healthy or harmful?

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Have you ever visited with your doctor via the camera on your smartphone or computer? Could this soon become the norm for minor conditions?

Doctor consultation apps seem to offer incredible convenience: For basic but annoying health issues, they could possibly replace a visit to urgent care. After a virtual consultation, doctors can prescribe antibiotics and common medications, if needed. The virtual appointments are often available for a flat fee that ranges from $40 to $50 per visit, depending on which app you use. Some offer monthly subscription rates.

But as Heather Somerville reports for the San Jose Mercury News, these apps also come with potential pitfalls.

For one, Somerville writes, patients are using the apps for conditions that, while common, typically require diagnostic tests – like strep throat, bronchitis, ear infections and urinary tract infections.

She says doctors also occasionally ask patients to take their own temperature and blood pressure, or feel their lymph nodes. This, she writes, is "an invitation for errors and misdiagnosis."

Also, she writes, these apps have grown more quickly than the rules surrounding telemedicine. She says 19 states – including California – have regulations allowing doctors to practice medicine via video, but the apps say they operate in twice as many. She writes:

"The Federation of State Medical Boards recently offered a model policy for states -- aimed at supporting the growth of telemedicine -- but states still have varying and often difficult-to-interpret rules, creating a vague regulatory framework that some experts say these companies have exploited."

But could consumer convenience outweigh these growing pains?

Somerville spoke with Dr. Ian Tong, a Stanford University clinical professor who works for Doctor on Demand, a consultation app founded by Dr. Phil and his son, Jay McGraw.

"The point is you're giving people better access to care without compromising quality and without promoting over-utilization of health care resources… If we already know that the doctor in the emergency room is going to say that you don't need an X-ray for this particular type of injury, why should you go into the emergency room and spend all that time [in the] waiting room just to be sent home and told the same thing that I would have told you in less than 15 minutes through the app."

Have you used a doctor consultation app? What was your experience like? Tell us about it in the comments section, or e-mail us at Impatient@scpr.org. 

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