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Wellness

I tried an online doctor -- and survived

A Singapore-based app let me consult with a doctor without leaving my sick bed (OK, my couch).

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Here's me speaking to Dr. Lee Hsiao Wen using the WhiteCoat app.

Aloysius Low/CNET

It was a burning smell in the air that got me.

Fumes from a nearby burning landfill in neighboring Malaysia had wafted over, causing my eyes to water and my nose to drip incessantly. I'm sensitive to smoke, and the smoke was apparently triggering my allergies.  

This finally gave me the excuse I needed to bust out WhiteCoat, a telehealth app that let me consult a doctor remotely from the comfort of my home here in Singapore.

Most of the time when you get sick, it makes a lot more sense to head to a clinic or doctor's office. But you will, of course, have to deal with transportation, queue times and other sick people. This time I decided to go the guinea pig route and dial in a doctor. With the telehealth industry projected to hit $19.5 billion in 2025, perhaps that future is already happening.

I sat myself down on my couch and fired up the WhiteCoat app. After signing up, I uploaded my credit card and drug allergy information and then had the option to choose from a list of six doctors, or let the system assign one to me.

I chose the latter and right away, I was connected to Dr. Lee Hsiao Wen. No waiting whatsoever. After explaining how we would proceed, she professionally ran me through a list of questions, including drug allergies. I had already answered a question about that, but it's better to be safe than sorry.

As with any patient-doctor consult, I then explained what I was feeling. Lee had me open my mouth into the camera to check out my throat. (I used another phone as a flashlight.) She then showed me how to do a quick self-check to see if any parts of my face around my nose were tender, which could have been a sign of a more severe illness.

Once done, it was a matter of then explaining which medicines she was doling out to me -- cetirizine for my nose and eye drops -- and that I could choose not to buy them. If I did, though, they would be delivered to my place slightly later in the day, with ID verification required since we were dealing with drugs (of the completely legal variety). WhiteCoat doctors can issue electronic sick passes to get you a day off work too. I passed on this offer. (You're welcome, CNET.)

The entire 20-minute process was smooth and breezy. It felt like an actual doctor's visit, without having to queue, and it kind of made sense for a minor illness like my allergies. 

Also, you don't necessarily have to be sick to use the app. WhiteCoat notes that you can use it to consult on lab test results. That said, WhiteCoat doesn't encourage frivolous use of the app -- plus you have to pay the consultation fee.

WhiteCoat wouldn't reveal the number of patients who have used its app due to "commercial sensitivities," which is corporate speak for: we don't want our competitors to know how we're doing. 

What WhiteCoat did tell me was that about 42 percent of patients use the service for the common cold, with 13 percent dialing in for stomach problems, 8 percent for a fever or headaches, and the remainder for skin and muscular issues.

As for doctors, Lee told me that it isn't any easier or harder to treat a patient over video. And if she determines that it doesn't work to treat a patient remotely, she asks the patient to come for an in-person consultation, see another doctor or head to the emergency department at a hospital.

"I believe that a tech-savvy population like Singapore's, coupled with the rise in demand for on-demand professional services including transportation, logistics and retail, means patients will help [doctors] in the medical community realize and maximize the potential of telehealth here," Lee said.

So is telehealth the future? I'm not sure. As tech progresses, perhaps one day, we can easily send over our blood pressure and heart rate through our watches, measure our body temperature using our phone's infrared camera, or even use a VR or AR helmet with sensors to meet a doctor face to face, at least virtually.

Before that happens, though, I'll likely stick to a good, ol' fashioned, germy clinic visit. Perhaps it's just me, but I'd still prefer meeting my doctor in person. I do concede, though, that there are plenty of advantages to seeing a doctor without leaving the house.