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Would you be happy to see your doctor online?

BBC Technology 12 Feb 2019 12:20
By Padraig Belton Technology of Business reporter
Dr Lydia Campbell-Hill carrying her sonImage copyright Lydia Campbell-Hill

Would you be happy to see your doctor online? Growing numbers of patients seem to be attracted by the convenience. And doctors are also finding it useful as health services come under pressure from growing and ageing populations.

Lydia Campbell-Hill, a 35-year-old doctor from Cornwall, England, says switching to online consultations has transformed her life.

"As a 'part-time' GP [general practitioner] working three days a week, I was doing 39 hours or more," she says.

"I was solo parenting, paying vast amounts on childcare, and not seeing my child much."

After leaving her clinic-based job and working mainly online from her lounge or kitchen, she says: "My stress levels dropped and I can fit my hours around school, even working a couple of hours in the evening after my son has gone to bed."

Doug Sweeny, from US primary care provider One Medical, says giving doctors the flexibility to work remotely greatly improves their quality of life.

"It works brilliantly, it actually helps if you need a flexible schedule or are in an area [where] we don't have bricks and mortar."

Image copyright Getty Images

It is a point echoed by Luke Buhl-Nielsen, from Swedish telemedicine app KRY (which uses the name LIVI outside Scandinavia).

And virtual visits are roughly two-thirds cheaper to provide than in-person visits, research suggests.

The US could have up to 50,000 fewer than it needs by 2030, research firm IHS Markit believes. In Asia, the doctor shortage is fuelling the rapid rise of telehealth apps such as Halodoc, Doctor Anywhere, and Ping An Good Doctor.

Nearly two-fifths of Americans aged 22-38 now seek routine medical services virtually these days, says a digital health survey from consultancy firm Accenture.

"People are wanting to receive healthcare with the simplicity and convenience they receive in other services in their life," says Brian Kalis, Accenture's head of digital health services.

Image copyright Celina Schocken

"You go to the app and request a consult, and then it assigns you to a nurse or doctor, they open your electronic chart, and it feels like a FaceTime session," she says.

The service costs $200 (£154; €176) a year to join and online consultations are free. But in-person visits and other services are extra.

Telemedicine has particularly taken off in Nordic countries, and is popular with women in Turkey, where birth control is coming under attack, according to analytics firm App Annie.

Employers are also cottoning on to the benefits of telemedicine as a workplace perk. In the US, retail chain Walmart is offering employees doctor's appointments for $4 if they use a telemedicine service.

But there are challenges integrating telemedicine into healthcare systems, like Britain's or Canada's, that are paid for primarily from taxation.

The patients with easily treatable conditions effectively subsidise those with more complex conditions who require more care and attention.

And while chatbot-based health apps, such as Babylon, are also proving useful for initial triage or assessment of simple patient conditions, there are some concerns about how accurate the artificial intelligence (AI) underlying such chatbots really is.

For example, she recently input symptoms of a man having a heart attack, and the AI came up with "panic attack" as a diagnosis.

So while many doctors think you can't beat a face-to-face consultation, there are plenty of benefits if that face is on a smartphone or computer screen.

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USCelina SchockenDr Lydia Campbell-HillAIPadraig Belton
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