While channel surfing during the holidays, I came across a re-run of House, the excellent medical drama on FOX. In this particular episode, Dr. Gregory House was performing some patient triage over a webcam. I thought to myself, “that’s a really neat application of video calling technology”. Today, I read an article in the New York Times by Claire Cain Miller, “Doctors Will Make Web Calls in Hawaii”. The company enabling this service is American Well, a Boston-based start-up who is pioneering the “New Healthcare Marketplace”. The web call service in Hawaii works like this:
Patients use the service by logging on to participating health plans’ Web sites. Doctors hold 10-minute appointments, which can be extended for a fee, and can file prescriptions and view patients’ medical histories through the system. American Well is working with HealthVault, Microsoft’s electronic medical records service, and ActiveHealth Management, a subsidiary of Aetna, which scans patients’ medical history for gaps in their previous care and alerts doctors during their American Well appointment.
For patients insured by Hawaii Medical Service Association (American Well’s customer), the cost is $10 to use the service. How affordable. Back when gas prices were sky high, one might spend this same amount just to make the drive to the doctor’s office! And in Hawaii, as the article notes, the islands are remote, which means that getting to see one’s physician may truly be a journey.
There are concerns, however, with such an approach:
However, some critics of doctor visits via webcam worry that doctors will miss important symptoms if they do not see patients in person. Others doubt that the poor and uninsured will have the broadband connection and webcams to use the service. .
“It’s a tool to help doctors do better, the way a stethoscope is a tool,” said Robert Sussman, a family practice doctor on Oahu. “You still have to use your common sense, your medical knowledge.”
I agree with Dr. Sussman – this technology does not replace the house call or doctor’s visit, but it does create a convenient, cost effective and carbon friendly “tool” for receiving health care.
Perhaps some medical insurers will create a network of Telepresence centers, where residents in certain locations (e.g. who live far from their physician) can travel a shorter distance to receive a “web call” via a high-tech, high definition solution. Of course, the doctor would need to use a Telepresence station on her end as well (so, some details need to be worked out!).
Or some day, perhaps you’ll beam a 3D representation of yourself into a virtual world and ask Dr. House to meet you there (for your check-up). The possibilities await!
Note: companies such as Tata and AT&T are setting up hosted telepresence offerings that are currently targeted at enterprises:
I believe that as Telepresence technology gains adoption, the technology will mature a bit and the pricing will come down to an area where it could be suited for consumer use (including for patient care).
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Note: A related technology is Cisco HealthPresence. It combines Cisco Telepresence with “physiological data captured by an array of medical devices”. More info can be found here: