With flu season kicking into high gear, many people looking to get medical care turn to the Internet instead of dragging themselves to their doctor’s office, urgent care, or local emergency room.
Patients have been able to connect with doctors remotely for years, but 2014 saw a boom in companies offering telemedicine services. Google launched a new ‘talk with a doctor now’ video chat service in October, while health plans and pharmacies including Walgreens, CVS, and Walmart have increasingly added remote medical kiosks.
“You just log in and request a visit and usually within 30 minutes you’ll be speaking with a medical provider,” says Jenny McClendon, a physician’s assistant with MeMD, an Arizona-based telemedicine service that contracts with health care professionals across the country, including in Washington state, to provide care.
“Basically, you discuss your symptoms and we can even prescribe medications right then and there. It’s a really awesome thing,” says McClendon.
According to McClendon, while it’s optimal to see a patient in person, services like MeMD can offer highly qualified diagnosis and treatment for a variety of common conditions including bites and stings, allergies, coughs, sinus and skin infections, sore throats, diarrhea and vomiting.
“If you come to me, I’m going to listen to your heart and lungs and I’m going to look in your ears and nose and throat, but typically if a patient tells me my throat is killing me and I have a fever, I’m not really going to see anything on exam, but I’m going to treat you,” she says. “Oftentimes, even in person, we’re going to treat based on what you’re going to tell us and based on the history and length of symptoms, so it can be very accurate if we ask the right questions.”
With medical providers available 24/7, services like MeMD can provide care even quicker than emergency rooms or urgent care clinics.
“Say a woman has had multiple urinary tract infections and they wake up in the middle of the night with the burning and the urgency and the frequency, they can actually call our service in the middle of the night and we can initiate antibiotics at that point in time,” she says.
Telemedicine can also save patients significant money. While MeMD doesn’t accept insurance, the cost to use the service is $49.95 per consult.
“If you have a family of four and you all have the flu and want a prescription for Tamiflu, you can just consult with us and get treated really quickly and affordably,” says McClendon.
That’s especially appealing for those who want to stay away from the ER or doctor’s office, especially with the flu reaching epidemic levels already this winter, according to the CDC.
It’s not a replacement for all medical needs. But McClendon says for a number of common conditions, patients can get taken care of quickly and far less expensively than the alternatives.
“Patients love it. I think sometimes it can be really frustrating to wait to get in with your doctor or see somebody for something simple,” she says. “There are just hundreds of simple medical reasons out there that you need to see a physician that aren’t serious that we can meet the need.”