Once upon a time, people saw primary care physicians -- and often in the comfort of their own homes. These "house calls" are rare enough today to conjure Rockwellian images of doctors with stethoscopes leaning over little Junior's sweaty brow.
While these intimate visits are largely a relic, the ability to reach a caregiver quickly is getting easier and more sophisticated thanks to video chat technology. And now, online care provider American Well is joining a burgeoning number of providers (TelaDoc, Hello Health, and 3G Doctor, to name a few) that are bringing their online services to mobile devices.
The latest iteration of its platform, which is called Online Care 6.0 and was first released in mid-2011, enables patients to use their cell phones and tablets for real-time video chats with caregivers.
American Well focuses on caregivers, counting major health plans such as UnitedHealth and WellPoint -- as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs, Rite Aid, and a slew of hospitals and clinics -- among its customers. With the mobile component of Online Care 6.0, Schoenberg says these customers are now better equipped to shift their focus to patients.
"Providers have the option to conduct online visits with their existing patients," says American Well CEO Dr. Roy Schoenberg. "This is what the VA is doing in allowing providers focused on behavioral health, oncology, and peri-operative care to have online visits with their veterans, allowing the veterans to remain at home rather than travel long distances while they are ill."
The video chat visits can be scheduled well in advance with one's usual care provider, much like office visits are scheduled, or at the last minute with whichever providers happen to be available. As for cost, Schoenberg says some providers charge co-pays while other patients see their employers absorb the cost.
In an interview with Mobile Health News, Schoenberg adds that patients already carrying an iPad, say, "have a full-blown video conferencing system at [their] fingertips. Consumers and physicians who have had some challenges utilizing these technologies on the Web are going to find themselves in a place where this is infinitely more accessible."
So easy-to-use real-time video chats work well on mobile devices. But when are these kinds of chats actually more meaningful and cost-effective than a quick visit or phone call with one's physician?
"Online Care is a complement for in-person care," he says. "Providers and consumers choose it in order to overcome barriers to traditional healthcare delivery -- whether that means distance, lack of time, patient mobility, or other factors. In rural areas, for example, it is not uncommon for consumers to drive several hours to see a doctor. Even in metro areas, the average wait to get a doctor's appointment can be several weeks."
Perhaps one of the best parts of the service, however, is the automatic capturing of each conversation. How many of us forget or simply don't understand what we are told at any given doctor's visit? By hosting these visits virtually, a full record is captured and recorded so that the provider or patient can call up details at any later point.
For those of us who hate shopping malls and would rather make as many of our purchases online as we can, there is a certain appeal to allowing at least some of our doctor's visits to be every bit as virtual and convenient.