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Tech by VICE

The Problem with Visiting the Doctor on Your Cellphone

A new app lets patients skip the office visit in lieu of a quick video chat with a physician. Even the medical industry isn't immune to our hunger for instant gratification.

by Meghan Neal
Dec 11 2013, 9:30am

Screenshot via Doctor on Demand

It's 2013, so why can't your phone diagnose all your ills? That's the goal of a new app called Doctor on Demand, which lets patients skip the office visit in lieu of a quick video chat with a physician, proving that even the medical industry isn't immune to our growing hunger for instant gratification.

Doctor on Demand isn't the first app to try to disrupt the timeworn doctor's appointment, but it's probably the most user-friendly of the bunch, and it comes with the celebrity pizzazz of being backed by Google and "Dr. Phil," who brainstormed the idea with his son, one of the startup's co-founders.

The idea is super simple: Forty bucks gets you 15 minutes with one of its pool of doctors currently "on shift." The doctors get paid $30 per virtual visit, and the other $10 goes to the company, co-founded by startup veteran Adam Jackson, radiologist Dr. Pat Basu, and Jay McGraw, Dr. Phil's son and the producer of the reality TV show The Doctors.

Ten clicks and a credit card swipe, and your ailments are diagnosed and prescribed, and all without leaving the couch, let alone spending an hour in the waiting room with a year-old magazine. The convenience factor alone may be tempting enough to get people to finally take telehealth seriously, or so figure the startup's investors; it's raised $3 million from Google Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, Venrock, and Shasta Ventures.

But do we really think this is a good idea? Are we ready to hang our physical and mental wellness on a few minutes with a virtual stranger? Is it even safe?

To the last point, the company recommends patients use the app for run-of-the-mill health concerns like the flu or a stomach ache, but not serious things like cancer. And while the on-demand physicians can prescribe drugs, controlled medications are still off limits, so folks can't fake their way into a narcotics scrip.

Specifically, these are the medical issues it's appropriate to discuss with a long-distance tele-doctor, according to the company website:

  • Cold, flu, cough, fever, allergies
  • Short term-prescriptions & prescription refills
  • Urinary Tract Infection
  • Pediatric fever, advice or other issues
  • Vomiting/diarrhea
  • STDs
  • Rashes / bites / skin problems
  • Sports Injuries, athlete's Foot
  • Smoking cessation
  • General medical question, "Should I go in for this or not?"

One common concern with telehealth diagnosis is that doctors might miss symptoms that are harder to spot virtually than they would be in person, which the app addresses by letting patients upload high-res photos during a chat session—awkward as that message may be for certain of bullet points on the list.

But that doesn't entirely address the deeper worry that health care is migrating away from the traditional idea of a family doctor. Can a stranger with high-res photos do a better job understanding your illness than a primary care physician that's known you your whole life? It's questionable. The service's doctors are licensed medical professionals—1,000 have signed up so far—whose quality is proven the same way as an Airbnb host: patients give them a rating of 1 to 5 after each call.

There's also matter of how to keep users' sensitive medical information (and photographs) secure and private. The app is compliant with the federal health care privacy law HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Still, cell phones can be hacked. What's more, the legality of telemedicine is still being ironed out. The app went live yesterday in 15 states and plans to expand out to another 25 or so more, but most states still require that a doctor-patient relationship begin in person.

Still, what could be the hook that makes cell phone concierge medicine finally catch is on the health insurance mess the country is currently facing. For many of the millions of uninsured Americans, debilitating health care prices means Google is their primary care physician. But Doctor on Demand lets users pay for a "visit" with a credit card, no insurance needed, and is surely a step up from searching your symptoms and self-diagnosing.

It's still too early to have any measurable data on whether telemedicine apps have a significant positive, or negative, impact on people's health. Along with this latest app, American Well, TelaDoc, Interactive MD, and Healthcare Magic are trying to find out. At this point, it's too soon to tell whether a doctor in your back pocket is the future of medicine or the unraveling of human-focused health care.

doctors on demand