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Doctors go online for high-tech house calls

January 11, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
With so many Americans struggling with various aspects of healthcare, a new kind of online house call could be the answer for some patients.

When Rodger Hoffman wanted a second opinion about surgery he was told he needed, he went to the Web.

"The doctor was able to ask me specific questions about my history of the injury and look at my hand and the condition that it was in," described Hoffman.

In this case, Hoffman was 5,000 miles away from his doctor. They could have corresponded through email, but the specialist felt this was a better option.

"There are some things that just don't translate well through email," explained Dr. Charles Eaton, a hand surgeon.

The two connected through a service known as 2nd.MD. It's one of a growing number of online services, such as American Well, TelaDoc and Consult a Doctor, all matching patients with doctors.

"Most of the people who come to our site have a diagnosis, so they are trying to find out what are the next steps. Where should I go for surgery? Do I need the surgery? Do I go to a different type of doctor?" 2nd.MD founder Clint Phillips said.

Phillips founded the company after his daughter had a stroke during birth.

"We were told to fly across the country to be able to have simple questions answered that we didn't even know the doctors knew the answers to," Phillips explained.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) sees more and more of its members going high tech with care, but they feel it's important to point out that you can only get so much help from a physician you never physically meet.

"It really is more of a conversation and information sharing. They make a clear and, I believe, appropriate distinction that it is not the delivery of medical care, and they describe that specifically that it's not diagnosing and not prescribing treatment," said AAFP President Glen Stream.

The AAFP thinks that's an important distinction when people are paying an average of $170, which insurance often doesn't cover, to see the doctor online. Hoffman says it was worth every penny.

"I spent more time with Dr. Eaton over the Internet than I do in a standard office face-to-face with my physicians," said Hoffman.

The AAFP noted there is definitely something for all physicians to learn from the fact that patients are seeking out specialized care online, and that it shows where the weaknesses are in the current healthcare system. This includes the notion that you're only going to get a limited amount of time at a doctor's visit.