TIME medicine

The Doctor Will Skype You Now

Telemedicine apps aim to replace nonemergency visits

When Vivek Sodera, 30, awoke with a swollen knee after a night out with friends, he knew he should probably see a doctor. Problem was, “I couldn’t move from my couch, and I didn’t want to pay for cabs to and from the hospital,” says the San Francisco–based entrepreneur.

So Sodera grabbed his phone and opened Doctor on Demand, a new app that allows users to video-chat with doctors to get medical help in real time. He typed in his symptoms, got paired with a nearby specialist and sent him a few photos of his knee. Within minutes, the doctor informed Sodera that he likely dislocated his knee and would need an MRI–which he scheduled for the following week.

Previously reserved mostly for luxe private practices or rural communities that lack access to health care, telemedicine–or soliciting live medical expertise from afar–is becoming increasingly mainstream, thanks to apps like Doctor on Demand, which is backed by Dr. Phil, and HealthTap, which touts more than 1 million users.

For patients, telemedicine apps are a cheap, easy alternative to nonemergency consultations. Asking text-based questions on HealthTap and AskMD is free, and a 15-minute appointment via Doctor on Demand costs $40 (roughly the same as a regular co-pay, except it doesn’t require insurance). For doctors, the apps are a tool to build a public profile, attract new patients and make a little extra cash during their downtime. And for hospitals, they’re a means to streamline care for existing patients. As Murray Aitken, executive director of the health care consultancy IMS Institute, puts it, “We are going to see a major shift in how medicine is practiced and where.”

But there are concerns. Although telemedicine apps can be useful for diagnosing routine illnesses like the flu and assessing minor injuries like Sodera’s dislocated knee, they’re not meant to totally replace in-person doctor’s exams–especially for potentially serious ailments like chest pain. It’s also not ideal to get prescriptions from a doctor who doesn’t have your electronic medical-record history on hand. (This has previously led to some malpractice suits.)

The key, says Aitken, is striking a balance–and using telemedicine to replace unnecessary visits. “If there is a way to keep healthy patients out of the doctor’s office through telemedicine,” he says, “that’s a good thing.”

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