Online doctor visits: what webcams should not do

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Remember the last time you went to the doctor's office? Perhaps for another one of those routinely intrusive check-ups or for a diagnosis of some curious illness that had set up camp in your immune system? As you sat in the waiting room, you may have thought to yourself, with society's growing need for speed and technology's rising influence, why hasn't something as simple as a doctor's appointment adopted some of these efficiencies?

Good things take time and indeed time is what it may take for Roy Schoenberg's solution to be accepted in today's health-care practices. As co-founder and chief executive of American Well, Schoenberg wants webcam housecalls to take the place of today's bothersome trips to the doctor. However, there is something wrong about cutting corners when dealing with a patient's health.

In defence of his innovation, Schoenberg maintains that, in addition to acknowledging a patient's precious time during the day, patient's value face-to-face conversations with their physicians. Yet seeing one's face is not the only way this can be done. Sure, seeing your physician on the computer may create a sense of security and personalize an appointment in a way that phone calls or e-mails cannot, but what webcam appointments fail to provide are the concrete benefits of seeing a doctor in person. If "trips to the doctor" consisting of sitting at home or at work and conversing with a screen are equally as beneficial as going to a doctor's office, what is the point of sitting through blood pressure, heart beat and external exams such as checking a patient's reflexes, eyes, ears and abdominal before actually getting to the point of the visit?

Aside from apparently providing a personal doctor-to-patient connection, the sight of a doctor's face through the use of a webcam is really no better at assessing any pains or illnesses than a phone call or an MSN or Facebook instant messaging session. A doctor needs to be able to see and touch a person in order to prescribe an appropriate treatment. If not, the doctor is only able to make predictions based on generalized symptoms memorized from a book. In that case, patients may as well do the research themselves and write their own prescriptions.

Furthermore, Schoenberg highlights the fact that patients find the use of webcam appointments favourable for asking their doctor about concerns and symptoms without having to wait weeks for an appointment. This would be convenient, but only assuming that your doctor is available to attend to your every worry. Being online enables doctors to address many more patients than he or she would be able to during a typical day at the office. This makes the waiting game predictably longer while the patient is unavoidably forwarded to another doctor who will inform the patient's doctor at a later time. In addition to this downfall, doctors do not have the time to deal with these types of issues, which is why services such as Health Link are available to patients 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A patient would simply be better off visiting a walk-in clinic if they felt the immediate need to consult a physician.

It seems that the only true benefit to using a webcam is allowing both doctors-- who will have less paperwork to do under the American Well system ­-- and patients to be more lazy.

Considering both the gains and losses of using Schoenberg's program, it seems that heath-care practices would be neglecting the proper care of a patient in exchange for speed and an easy way out of necessary work. With technology inching its way into nearly every part of our lives, webcam check-ups are a definite possibility, but it runs the risk of patients being dealt the short stick and having to deal with the consequences of an improper diagnosis or an undetected illness. Essentially, what it comes down to is whether patients are willing to gamble with their health on a faulty technological innovation in an attempt to avoid a potential day off.