Can a Virtual Doctor Visit Save You Money?

In Maryland, an 87-year-old woman wakes up each morning and takes her blood pressure in her apartment by slipping her arm through a collar hooked up to a computer – which sends the results straight to her doctor. In Utah, a family therapist meets online with a mother who’s children are acting out and offers counseling. In Hawaii, a 59-year-old nurse with an infected cut on her arm sits at her computer to chat with a doctor and get a prescription for antibiotics.

Welcome to the future of medicine. For some of us, it’s already here. But are the rest of us ready for it?

As we mentioned in the video above, a poll by the consumer site Angie’s List showed that 87 percent of us would love the convenience – and the savings – of using online technology to consult with our doctors. But only about a quarter of us actually have that access now. And 6 percent prefer seeing their doctors in person.

The cost of online visits varies by doctor – at the high end, they could be the same price as an office visit. But more often, they’re significantly less: commonly from $10 – $35 for a brief consultation.

“Patients like these services because they are convenient, cost less and save time while still getting the patient closer to better health,” says Angie Hicks, founder of Angie’s List. “We’ve heard from Angie’s List members whose doctor’s offices uploaded test results on the facility’s website. Patients can then log in and read their doctor’s notes in detail. It’s a huge help for patients to be able to go back and reread details of the appointment instead of having to try to remember everything that was discussed at the time.”

Of course, Hicks adds, “If you’re having chest pains, trouble breathing or have a serious injury, clearly you should seek emergency care.”

What the future will look like – and cost

The boldest vision of tomorrow’s healthcare may come from a new joint venture between computer processor company Intel and GE Healthcare, which envisions homes wired with monitors and infrared devices that can detect medical emergencies, as well as regular online checkups. The two companies even drew a picture of how it would work.

“We think this joint venture will offer great potential to address these challenges by improving the quality of life for millions while lowering healthcare costs through new technology,” says Jeff Immelt, GE’s CEO.

For now, your best bet is to ask your doctor if online consultations are offered now or might be in the near future – smart doctors will notice if their patients are clamoring for this and will look into it. Also check with your insurance company, because even if you have a tech-savvy doctor, your health insurance might not cover the cost of the visit.

While online consultations are still rare, online prescription refills are much more common. And we’ve written about other ways to save on prescription drugs. (Prescription for Trouble?)

So ask about ways to save. If you have minor health problems, you can get some general guidance by logging onto sites like Free MD and IBS Help Online and typing in your symptoms.

And while you’re at it, also check out 3 Tips for Healthy Finances if You Get Sick and 6 Tips for Lower Medical Bills and Cheaper Drugs.

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Comments & discussion

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  • Anonymous

    There is no question that these types of techniques can improve patient care, save money and enhance convenience. The big question is whether the insurers will pay for the use of the “virtual doctor.” Even simple approaches like telephone consultations, email queries and the like are generally not covered by insurance so many docs avoid them. This will need to change if medicine is to reach its real and full potential.