Are virtual doctor visits the wave of the future? -

Are virtual doctor visits the wave of the future?

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LAS VEGAS (FOX5) - Trips to the doctor's office could go the way of at-home visits. New technology has made virtual visits reality. While these online sessions have many advantages, some medical professionals worry the drawbacks could be dangerous.

Patients are using FaceTime or Skype to speak with physicians in just minutes, eliminating long waits at offices.

Rena Austin-Brown has four kids, a puppy, two jobs and attends school. She said her children see the doctor more often now that their visits are virtual.

“If one gets sick even just once a week, that's half a week's pay missed just for tending to each child being sick once a week,” Austin-Brown said.

That changed when Austin-Brown's insurance provider began offering NowClinic. It enables her to use FaceTime to confer with her doctors from her phone.

“Before, you weighed those options – OK, do I want to sit in the quick care or ER for three hours? Or – It's late, I'm tired, I have to work tomorrow. It actually makes you get seen more [frequently],” she said.

NowClinic is now available to all Health Plan of Nevada and Sierra Life and Health members, both individual and commercial.  

A patient logs in to a website, fills out a brief questionnaire and chooses an available doctor. Following a short wait, the session begins.

Patients can log in via a desktop computer, laptop or smartphone. Doctors can even prescribe medicine during virtual visits.

“The most common visits [involve] common respiratory infection colds, sore throats, sinus infections [and] bladder infections,” said Dr. Eugene Somphone, medical direct for Southwest Medical On Demand Medicine. 

The NowClinic launched this year with more than 350,000 members and is on pace to see about 5,000 patients by the end of the year.

“We do see a fair amount of pediatrics – usually older kids with ear infections, sore throats, cough and colds,” Somphone said.

Somphone said doctors can diagnose patients with the aid of detailed medical history. Patients will be referred to urgent care if a physical exam is required, Somphone said.

Family physician Dr. Daliah Wachs said that while telemedicine has advantages, she worries patients might be misdiagnosed without the physical presence of a physician.

“I can see if your thyroid's enlarged. I could do a pretty good job, [but] I don't want to do a pretty good job, I want to do a damn good job. If I'm going to lose ability to touch and feel and talk to patients, we just lost the quality of care I can give,” Wachs said.

Wachs also worries about privacy, specifically being HIPPA compliant. She also has concerns about hackers.

“How do you ensure privacy? If the CIA and Senate can be hacked, is your visit gonna be private?” Wachs asked.

Wachs said she hopes this doesn't become the sole way doctors will communicate with patients, but with Obamacare, things are moving in that direction, she said. 

“We've had a lot of doctors leave the field, so we have less doctors, less access. We've had costs go up. If a telemedicine interview is a lot cheaper than a doctor visit, people are going to choose that route,” Wachs said.

Somphone agrees. He said growth can't be sustained when it comes to health costs, so physicians are getting creative.

“As more and more people try this stuff, it's going to gain more acceptance. I think five years from now we'll see a different landscape in terms of how medicine is delivered,” Somphone said.

Austin-Brown said that not only are virtual doctor visits saving her time, they're saving her money. She said a NowClinic visit only costs about a third of her co-pay.

The average wait time of a NowClinic physician is between six and seven minutes. The average session lasts between seven and eight minutes. Prescriptiond are sent to patients online, so they can head to a pharmacy immediately afterwards.

Somphone said some patients have connected with doctors from grocery stores or while sick in bed. He further said the technology is great for rural areas with limited access to quality care.

Somphone stressed that physicians are careful about what is prescribed, and that controlled medicines are out of the question.

Wachs agrees telemedicine is great for psychiatric care and psychological therapy.

NowClinic patients must be in Nevada, but physicians can be located anywhere in the country as long as they are licensed in Nevada.

Some doctors now see patients exclusively online, while others see them at clinics and online.

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