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Doctor visits moving from office to phone

The doctor will text you now.

In this day when we can shop, bank, and even find a potential spouse from our phone, it makes sense the next step is seeing our doctor online.

Advances in technology make it simple to facetime a physician and get a prescription from our own living room in a growing field called telemedicine. Many companies are pushing this option.

Walmart employees, for example, can get a telemedicine visit with a doctor for only $4. BlueCross BlueShield is offering video or phone consultations with a physician for just $15.

This is not a fad. With technology constantly advancing, and physicians in growing demand, more and more medical visits will be conducted by phone.

“We’re moving from the way healthcare has typically been delivered,” said Saint Thomas River Park CEO Dale Humphrey. “Unless someone invents teleportation, telemedicine is the way we’re going.”

At River Park, telemedicine is currently used for anyone who comes to the hospital with stroke-like conditions. Humphrey says technology allows for better, faster care in these emergencies.

“Thanks to telemedicine, we have a neurologist on staff 24-7,” said Humphrey. “As a rural hospital, there’s no other way we could accomplish this. But with telemedicine, the neurologists can cover the entire Saint Thomas network from one location. If a stroke patient comes in, the doctor can talk directly to a nurse on site who can perform whatever diagnostics the doctor deems necessary.”

While some patients may be apprehensive, Humphrey says telemedicine can provide reliable and comprehensive care. And its use is only going to grow.

According to research firm IHS Markit, there were 23 million telemedicine visits in the U.S. in 2017. That number is expected to soar to 105 million by 2022.

Local physician Dr. Todd Stewart with McMinnville Medical Associates says he has yet to see a patient via telemedicine, but he figures this will change.

“The market forces are going to push this and it will evolve like everything else,” said Dr. Stewart. “I think we’re going to see more of it because the insurance companies will drive it.”

Stewart says he prefers to see patients in person, but says telemedicine could be a workable alternative.

“It will be harder for some conditions, but OK for others,” said Dr. Stewart. “Most people want to get their antibiotic prescription and go. For something like a poison ivy rash, where you can hold it up to the screen, that might be pretty obvious. But other things might not be so clear cut.”

Humphrey said specialists tend to gravitate toward bigger cities because that’s what the market dictates. 

He said for residents of rural areas, telemedicine could be a great convenience if it saves them hours of travel time.

But the telemedicine sales pitch has been slow to gain traction. In 2017, a reported 80 percent of mid-size and large U.S. companies offered telemedicine to their employees, according to the Associated Press. But only 8 percent of those employees took advantage of that option.

If telemedicine visits do soar to 105 million by 2022 as projected, that will still only amount to about 1 out of every 10 doctor visits, according to healthcare analyst Roeen Roashan.