Some boutique medical practices are offering Skype sessions with doctors as an instant communication bonus to their clients, for a price. And modern communication will likely change how all of us eventually communicate with our doctors. But, some medical experts are concerned that it could be destructive to practicing good medicine.
One boutique startup in Philadelphia trying out this Skype approach is R-Health. For a $79 monthly subscription, the company offers family doctor services, plus some modern accessories.
With R-Health, you can Skype or email your doctor from the comfort of your home or office. And although you have to buy a separate insurance policy to cover major costs - like an operation – it does sound pretty convenient.
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So what kinds of problems might online doctoring work for? Dr. Randy Robinson, Chief Medical Officer at R-Health, says talking over a blood test or a diagnosis for something like shingles – can all be done using Skype. And patients can still go in to see the doctor, if they want to.
The idea is to make life easier for everyone.
"We're able to take technology that has evolved over time and use it in medical practice as a tool to deliver care, rather than an obstacle between patient and provider," says Robinson.
The power of face to face contact
There's little doubt that all this instant communication with your doctor is convenient. But it's a far cry from the cozy 1950s image of the family physician.
Dr. Victoria Sweet is an internist and Professor of Medicine at the University of California. She prefers the old school style of medicine – and says there's no substitute for real face time with your doctor.
"Skype I'm a little more skeptical of because it's so easy to think that you can replace that really personal presence," says Dr. Sweet.
I asked her whether being in the same room as a patient really makes a difference.
"There's so much you get out of it," she says. "I mean if I watch somebody just walk in, I smell them. You smell their clothes. You smell how clean they are or how dirty."
Dr. Sweet told me about one patient who was sent to her. He'd had every test imaginable, and still nobody could figure out what was wrong with him. But a simple physical exam gave Dr. Sweet the clues she needed - to make a diagnosis.
"It turned out he had esophageal cancer, metastatic. Nobody had felt these lumps. They'd done all the blood tests, they'd sat in front of their computers. But they'd never looked at the man," she says. "It was right on his body. This happened over and over again.
A powerful message that hands on doctoring - through sight, smell and touch - could be the key to better healthcare.
"The really good family practitioner, they're incredible," she says. "They're so important in their patients' lives. You can't replace that. It's a relationship. And the essence of the matter is that relationship."
'Enhancing a relationship'
So how can we make sure that - in a hectic world - gadgets don't distance us from our doctors?
Koncierge MD is a software company based in Newtown Square, Pa. It's helping doctors clinics across America adopt web and smartphone technology into their practice. Chief Executive - Vijay Khanna – insists that online access to our doctors adds to the patient experience.
"They get to still see their physician," Khanna says. "We're not taking away, we are enhancing that relationship, because now I can, in a more convenient way, email my doctor and schedule appointments so it's actually enhancing that relationship in so many better ways."
Instant access doesn't automatically equal quality care. But it sure would be nice to avoid the dreaded waiting room scenario we've all become familiar with.