When you’re running a fever, nursing a sore shoulder, or battling a bad cold, you know the right thing to do is see a doctor. But when you’re feeling miserable, the last thing you want to do is sit in a stuffy waiting room, getting sneezed on by people who are sicker than you are.
That could explain the growing popularity of virtual doctors, who let you skip the whole “going to” part of going to the doctor. In theory, it’s just another way your smartphone can make your life easier: Just download an app, connect virtually with a board-certified physician, and get an instant diagnosis for whatever ails you.
But is it too good to be true? We talked to physicians who offer both in-person and virtual visits to get you the 411.
PRO: It’s very convenient for acute illnesses.
Even if you call your doctor, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a same-day appointment, and urgent care centers can be pricey. Virtual doctors, on the other hand, are available on demand and typically cost around $49 per visit. “If you have a cough, sore throat, vomiting, or diarrhea — anything you’d like to talk to a doctor about — telehealth visits have been shown to help,” says Nicole Van Groningen, MD, an internal medicine specialist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. There’s always a small risk of misdiagnosis, but studies have shown that virtual doctors make a correct diagnosis in the majority of cases.
CON: You may get an antibiotic you don’t need.
Antibiotics are great for bacterial infections like strep, but they don’t work against viruses like the common cold, and overuse can make germs more resistant. “For respiratory complaints, people are more likely to get prescribed antibiotics by a virtual doctor than an in-person doctor, which is something consumers should be aware of,” Dr. Van Groningen says.
PRO: You may be able to see your doctor virtually.
While there are several national networks to choose from, including MDLive and Teladoc, many physicians now offer virtual visits as an option for their regular patients — and a local provider may be better able to arrange testing, refer you to local specialists, and see you in person if needed – which could be very helpful if you’re traveling and don’t want to go to an urgent care clinic. “One of the things we pride ourselves on doing is being able to coordinate your care,” says Judd Hollander, MD, associate dean for Strategic Health Initiatives at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and professor of Emergency Medicine at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Jefferson launched JeffConnect last year, a video-chat service that’s staffed by an emergency physician 24 hours a day. “We can resolve most things right on the phone,” Dr. Hollander adds, “and we can actually prevent you from having to spend a torturous night in the emergency department.”
CON: It’s not ideal in emergencies.
The old rules still apply: If you’re having a medical emergency, go to the emergency room. You wouldn’t go to your GP in an emergency and you shouldn’t turn to a virtual doctor either. Virtual visits aren’t intended for life-or-death situations. Dr. Hollander points out, however, that the average heart attack patient waits three hours before seeking treatment for their symptoms: “It’s not like they’re choosing me or the emergency department,” he says. “They might actually be choosing me or nothing.”
PRO: You can avoid the ER for many minor injuries.
Wondering if a bone is broken or a cut needs stitches? Virtual doctors have a fairly reliable way of gauging injuries via video. “By having the patient examine themselves and answer very specific yes-or-no questions about where they hurt and where they don’t hurt, I can sometimes tell with more than 99 percent accuracy that people do not need an X-ray,” Dr. Hollander says.
CON: You may miss out on testing.
In a study on virtual health care published in JAMA Internal Medicine, patients contacted virtual doctors with made-up ailments like ankle pain or cold symptoms. Researchers found that virtual doctors did thorough exams on these patients between 52 and 82 percent of the time. Whether this is problematic is up for debate — the study didn’t compare the data to in-person visits, and more testing doesn’t always equate to better care. “As a healthcare system, we do a lot of unnecessary testing,” Dr. Van Groningen says. “The vast majority of diagnoses, you’re going to make based on [medical] history alone. So I don’t think that’s an inherent disadvantage.”
PRO: Follow-up care isn’t a time suck.
If you have a chronic pain disorder, need to regularly monitor your vitals, or are recovering from an injury that requires physical therapy, telemedicine can make follow-up visits less of a hassle. “Virtual care is of great benefit in managing chronic conditions,” says Joseph Glaser, MD, a virtual care–certified nuclear medicine physician at Radiologic Associates, PC, in Middletown, New York. “Patients can check in with their doctor more often and make frequent, small adjustments to treatment regimens to better adapt to changes and hopefully get them controlled more quickly and precisely.”
PRO: It makes mental health care more accessible.
“If you work a 9-to-5 job, you can’t get out in the middle of the day to go see a therapist,” says Dr. Van Groningen says. Not to mention, simply leaving the house can be a struggle when you’re dealing with depression. But as telemedicine gains momentum, more and more mental health professionals are getting on board — and the relatively low cost makes care more accessible for more people.
Bottom line? Video-chatting with your doctor may sound a bit too hands-off, but it can actually be a convenient, affordable alternative to in-person visits. If you’re not comfortable trying your luck with a national network, see if your local health system offers virtual care. While Dr. Hollander acknowledges that both physicians and patients tend to be skeptical of the idea at first, the experience usually wins them over in the end. “Everybody comes back and does it again,” he says. “It’s like a lot of things in life — you don’t know it until you try it.”
What do you think? Would you try it?