There are plenty of reasons why it might be easier to open up a smartphone app and chat with a doctor rather than making a trip to the clinic. The office may be closed. You may be traveling. If you’re caring for young children—especially ill children—it may be difficult to bundle them into the car.
And then there are, well, other reasons.
“One thing we hear a lot from people is a fear of germs,” said Karen Scott, senior director of marketing, product and innovation in UnitedHealthcare’s telehealth and onsite initiatives division. “People like this idea that they can stay in their own home and not have to sit in the waiting room.”
Whatever the reason for its popularity, telemedicine is becoming a reality for many people. Between 18 and 20 million people now have UnitedHealthcare plans that cover virtual visits, which allow them to talk with a doctor about routine complaints on a computer or smartphone.
Such visits are likely to become more common. A 2016 analysis by the information and analytics consulting firm IHS predicts that the number of overall virtual visits in the United States will more than double from 36.4 million visits in 2015 to more than 90 million by 2020.
One reason for that fast growth? The visits appeal both to patients and to employers who choose benefit plans for their employees.
“For the busy parent getting ready for work, taking kids to school and finding time to have dinner as a family, telemedicine is a convenient way to access medical care quickly,” said Paul Marden, CEO of UnitedHealthcare of New Jersey. Employers offering benefits like this have seen the value through happier, healthier employees spending less time away from work.”
Here’s how it works: Patients log on to uhc.com and choose one of two virtual visit providers, either Amwell or Doctors on Demand. After either clicking on a link or downloading the relevant app, patients fill in a quick registration form with their basic information, insurance information and description of their symptoms. After that, the visit begins.
The visit itself is conducted over a private video-messaging platform that would look familiar to those who have used SkypeTM or Apple’s FaceTime®. In most states, doctors can write prescriptions and send them to a patient’s pharmacy after the virtual visit. That capability, Scott said, has proved useful to her in the past.
Virtual visits are designed to get people relief for common problems that are fairly easy to diagnose, such as allergies, cold and flu symptoms, diarrhea, pink eye, rashes, sinus pain, stomachaches and urinary tract infections.
But there are limitations to what a virtual visit can do. If you have a serious cut on your finger or a broken bone, you’re better off heading to an emergency room or urgent care facility, where a qualified medical professional can actually stitch you up or set your limb.
If you’re looking for help managing a chronic condition such as diabetes or a complex one such as cancer, visit your primary care doctor or specialist. Virtual visits are also not a replacement for regular checkups with a primary care doctor who knows your medical history.
The cost of a virtual visit is typically lower than that of a visit to a doctor’s office, urgent care center or emergency room, but the exact cost will vary based on what plan you have, Scott said.
The bottom line: When you can’t get to the doctor’s office—for whatever reason—an affordable, convenient solution may be no further than your smartphone.