Gone are the days when you had to call up your doctor's office, schedule an appointment, wait a week, take off work, and drive to your doctor's office to be treated. How does texting your doctor from your bed sound? This could soon be the new way of being treated by doctors.
Dr. Anna Nguyen spoke with none of the five patients she treated on a recent weekday morning. In fact, Dr. Anna didn't even leave her house. From her dining table, the emergency physician was able to help a pregnant woman from Ohio handle hip pain, examine a Michigan man's sore throat, and texted a mom whose son was sick on vacation in Mexico.
This is the newest way health care is becoming more convenient. It's referred to as the chat diagnosis.
Dr. Nguyen started the company, CirrusMD, which can connect patients with a doctor in less than 60 seconds. Although the service is very fast, patients most likely won't get to see or talk directly to the doctor. The majority of conversations take place through secure text messaging.
“We live in a consumer-driven world, and I think that consumers are becoming accustomed to being able to access all types of service with their thumbs,” CirrusMD co-founder Dr. Blake McKinney said.
CirrusMD isn't the only business of its kind either. Other companies like 98point6 and K Health are offering similar services. These companies offer message-based treatment for injuries and minor illnesses normally dealt with by clinics or doctor's offices.
These companies claim to be more convenient than video telemedicine services which many employers and insurances are now offering. K Health and 98point6 said that patients accustomed to Uber-like convenience are enticed by their services because patients can text their doctor while they're riding a bus or waiting in line at a grocery store.
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These companies are making healthcare more convenient and accessible to millions of Americans. The companies are continuing to grow due to a push to improve care access, improve patients' health, and limit the expenses associated with emergency visits.
Companies like Sam's Club are starting to offer these services as part of customer care programs. Some doctors aren't 100% on board yet. One concern that has been brought up regards the quality of care. Some doctors are worried the quality of care may not be as high as it would be if the patients were seen in offices. This is because the message-based doctors won't actually see the patients and they may have a limited medical history.
“If the business opportunity is huge, there’s a risk that that caution is pushed aside,” said Dr. Thomas Bledsoe, a member of the American College of Physicians.
Cirrus MD, 98point6, and K Health say that safety is their number one priority. Dr. Nguyen said that when cases are severe or unusual, they will recommend in-person doctor visits. Dr. Nguyen once urged a woman, aged 85, who was complaining about crushing chest pain to go to an emergency room.
The companies also mentioned that a lot of cases are typical and don't require a thorough medical history. Many cases also don't require vital signs like temperature and blood pressure. If need be, the doctors can coach patients through taking vital signs. Doctors can also choose to do a video or phone conversation when they feel it's necessary.
The companies claim they can resolve more than 80% of their cases through messaging alone. Right now, about 3 million people in the United States have access to CirrusMD. This is mostly through their insurance providers. Most insurances that offer this service don't charge any additional fees to use it so patients can text with doctors for free.
By watching Dr. Nguyen sat at her table texting on her phone, you wouldn't know whether she was the patient or the doctor. Her phone began dinging shortly after her 5-hour shift began.
First, she gave physical therapy suggestions to a pregnant woman. Then she helped a man from Colorado who hurt his back while moving boxes. While she was helping those two, she received another text from a man in Michigan who was checking in about his sore throat.
Shortly after, the mother on vacation in Mexico texted Dr. Nguyen that her six-year-old son was vomiting, had a fever, and diarrhea. Her husband and second son also weren't feeling well. The doctor asked the mother a series of questions and requested a picture of the son. In the photo, Dr. Nguyen noticed that the boy's skin color indicated that he wasn't dehydrated.
“The picture itself looks reassuring,” she said. “If he had encephalitis, he’d be really confused and out of it.” The doctor thought it was a stomach bug and told the mother to make sure he kept drinking water to prevent dehydration.
“I think patients will like it a lot because most really hate going to their doctor,” she said. It's a lot more work having to make an appointment, take off work to go to the doctor's office and sit in the waiting room when you can easily just shoot your doc a text from wherever you are.
As convenience becomes more of a priority for people, I think more insurance companies will start offering these resources. They weren't created to replace doctor's office visits but to improve access to medical care.