The Doctor Is In (Your Phone)

It’s flu season, so a bright red postcard in the mail that says, “Talk To A Real Doctor Today!!!” draws some attention.

It’s also an enduring season of doctor shortages and health-insurance dilemmas. So the promise that you can be diagnosed and receive prescriptions “24/7 … by phone, videoconference, or e-mail” is at the very least a nicely timed piece of marketing.

Or maybe it’s the future of health care. HealthNation, a nationwide telemedicine company run by marketing entrepreneurs recently entered the Nevada market. The company offers remote consultations with doctors for $40 a month, or $60 for a family.

“It’s like having an uncle that’s a doctor and can call in a prescription,” says local sales rep John Aldaco. “But it’s a legal way of doing it.” Aldaco said the company has spent five years navigating different state laws to set up shop.

Founded in Scottsdale, Ariz., HealthNation advertises a stable of U.S.-based doctors as the virtual revival of the traditional house call. Doctors may prescribe some drugs such as antibiotics or antihistamines, but not “substances regulated by the DEA” that may have the “potential for abuse or addiction.” The service does not provide any hospital benefits.

In a recent nationwide survey of doctors by the information technology company CompTIA, one in 10 physician responding said they intended to use videoconferencing for patient interaction in the next year. Federal and state governments have funded telemedicine projects to reach patients in rural areas for more than a decade. Constantly improving technology allows for not only video interaction, but transmission of diagnostic tests such as X-rays. Worldwide, complex care is being provided remotely via technology to areas such as the Scottish highlands and sub-Saharan Africa.

But as the waiting rooms at Las Vegas urgent cares fill up, it seems like the potential uses of telemedicine are drawing nearer to home, brought on not by geographical challenges but by political and economic ones which have left consumers and doctors frustrated.

HealthNation’s website pitches the allure of “fewer visits to the germ-infested waiting room” to potential patients, and attempts to recruit doctors to its pool by saying, “Work from home … spend more time with each patient … dramatically reduce your overhead.”

For his part, Aldaco was a consultant in estate planning before taking on telemedicine. “We’re getting a lot of calls. It makes sense. We can meet 70 to 80 percent of people’s needs,” Aldaco surmises.

“Sometimes you know what you need—you’ve got an earache and a fever, and you just need a doctor to write you a prescription for antibiotics.”

If only the nation’s health-care policy problems were that simple.

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