It's early in the morning and you wake up with a sore throat and fever. Your doctor's office doesn't open for another 2 hours, what do you do?
Millions of Americans grab their smartphone or tablet, tap an app and are being examined by a doctor they probably haven't seen before. They're using mobile health, or tele-medicine apps such as Dr. on Demand and Teladoc.
The patient sees the doctor and the doctor sees the patients in sort of a FaceTime or Skype video conversation.
Teladoc's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Henry DePhillips explains "You actually have a real-time interaction with a board certified physician. There's no time limit, the doc can take as long with you as necessary to figure out what's going on, figure out an appropriate diagnosis, create a game plan the two of you agree on. And, if a prescription is necessary we can actually e-prescribe that prescription," Dr. DePhillips said.
I tried it recently when I woke up with a scratchy throat and congestion. I downloaded Dr. on Demand for my iPad, answered a few simple questions and within about 5 minutes I was talking face-to-face on screen with Dr. Tania Elliott who's office is in New York City.
She asks me to check for pain and swelling by tapping on my face and forehead. She also instructs me to open wide and say 'ahhh' looking into the camera lens. "I see a little redness back there," she told me.
After our conversation, she diagnosed my ailment as allergies and said she'll submit a prescription electronically that will be delivered to a pharmacy near me.
"We actually do get patients who say we have good bedside manner," she said with a smile. "I like to call it website manner."
Teladoc and Dr. on Demand are two of the most popular telemedicine apps in Apple's app store. Teladoc is available through company health benefit plans and hospital systems but isn't available direct to consumers.
Dr. on Demand can be used by anyone with or without insurance. A visit is $49.
You don't get to see your own doctor of course. You're connected to a doctor who is available when you log-on and request a visit. Dr. Elliott told me she will see patients from 7am-3pm most days. Other doctors from around the country also see patients to provide anyone using the Dr. on Demand app for 24/7/365 care.
Teladoc doesn't employee doctors but it does have, according to Dr. DePhillips, 3,300 providers around the United States who are licensed and physically present in all 50 states.
"We will do just shy of 1,000,000 visits across the United States this year," said Dr. DePhillips. "I'll give you the top 3 diagnoses: sinusitis, bronchitis, and a subset of urinary tract infections."
Dr. Elliott told me she's seen patients with more serious conditions. "We've diagnosed appendicitis, we've diagnosed blood clots," she said adding one patient's symptoms were even more serious. "The left side of her stomach was bothering her," she said about one patient. "When I did the examination, I saw that she was having difficulty breathing and I said you need to go to the emergency room, I think you have a clot in your lung, a pulmonary embolism."
Doctor apps such as Dr. on Demand and Teladoc are especially beneficial for people who feel the need to see a doctor late at night, on weekends or when traveling.
Many traditional doctors are uncomfortable with the idea of a virtual doctor visit. Dr. Dawn Linn told me she thinks getting an exam through an app can be dangerous.
"I think it's simple for patients to over exaggerate symptoms or give you symptoms that aren't the same as I would get out of you with appropriate questioning," she said. "I think it can offer some room for misinterpretation or misdiagnoses based on not being able to actually touch and feel you."