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Have you heard of telehealth? Its popularity is rising as many discover this reliable and convenient way of accessing health services.
It's 10am on a Monday morning. You're in bed with a runny nose and pounding headache. You've let your boss know you've come down with the cold that’s been making its way through the office. You need to rest, but first you have to drag yourself out of bed, get dressed, drive to the doctor's office, find a park and wait for half an hour (if you're lucky) to see a GP. And then, as you're handed your medical certificate, the doctor will probably advise that you get some rest!
With so many employers requiring a doctor's certificate – even for one day of sick leave – this inconvenience is often a necessity.
"There has to be an easier way," you mutter. And maybe there is.
Imagine instead: you pull up the doona and catch up on Netflix, only dragging yourself out of bed to brew some chicken noodle soup for lunch. This is actually a possibility thanks to telehealth and virtual doctors.
Telehealth typically involves a videoconference between you and your doctor. Virtual doctor technology is already breaking down geographical barriers, giving those in remote areas access to good medical care. And now it's catching on more widely.
GP Dr Sam Ioannidis sees telehealth as a way forward, and he says there are many Australian patients in doctors' waiting rooms who don't need to be there.
"A good proportion of patients in the waiting room don't need to see their doctor face to face, and an online conference is sufficient."
Almost 75% visits are either unnecessary or could be handled safely and effectively over the phone or via video technology.
Indeed, in the US almost 75% of all doctor, urgent care and emergency visits are either unnecessary or could be handled safely and effectively over the phone or via video technology.
Unsurprisingly, patients are keen to embrace the technology; the government's Australian Digital Health Agency recently reported that 73% of Australians said they want to access their health services online.
Dr Ioannidis says he has patients who videoconference from their beds, but what other benefits does the technology offer?
Efficiency is a major plus for patients, Dr Ioannidis says, especially when you're only seeing the doctor for something like a repeat prescription. It can also be much more convenient. "One person told me she no longer needs to take time off work to be treated for a urinary tract infection."
Dr Ioannidis's virtual doctor services, provided through the Doctors on Demand platform, have been well received.
"Many patients have told me that they were very happy that the service is available. Telehealth has the potential to improve the availability of doctors throughout Australia and it also expands the patient's choice of who to consult."
Several virtual doctor services offer round-the-clock care. Improved community healthcare outcomes are another possibility, with telehealth available to many patients who may not choose to see a doctor in person or who would otherwise slip between the cracks.
At present, the biggest drawback of seeing a virtual doctor is the cost. John Martin, CEO of Doctors on Demand, explains: "Bulk billing isn't available for patient-to-GP telehealth consults. Although, the cost should be weighed up against the benefit of saving time and travel."
If you're worried about an increased possibility of misdiagnosis, don't be. "We don't believe this is an issue," Martin says. "If a consult isn't appropriate for a video consultation, patients can be directed to see their GP for a face-to-face appointment."
There are, of course, some situations that can't be dealt with online, including those requiring physical examinations.
Let's imagine that you don't really have a cold, but are recovering from a big weekend. Will it be easier to fake a sickie using a virtual doctor?
"Like a face-to-face appointment, a GP has to rely on the honesty of the patient," Martin says. "Experienced doctors use their extensive professional judgement, whether they are consulting via videoconference or face to face."
While person-to-person healthcare delivery remains the gold standard, telehealth technology is a path to more convenient health services and good health outcomes in many situations.
It's not only virtual doctors that are impacting the health industry. Virtual reality is being used by medical undergraduates and surgeons from the university to the hospital bed and the psychology clinic. Find out more by checking-out our article First-person surgeons: How virtual reality is changing healthcare.