The last time I went to the doctor, I sat in the waiting room, tapping away at my iPhone and sighing under my breath, for almost an hour. Maybe that’s extreme (for non-emergency room visits at least) but even the national average, according to a recent analysis, is 21 minutes. And that doesn’t include time spent booking the appointment, waiting for a slot to open up or transporting yourself to the office. Emergency room wait times can be much worse – from more than an hour to four hours, depending on who you ask.
But an emerging group of startups is trying to make healthcare more convenient by connecting patients and doctors for phone calls, Web video chats or written replies. The virtual doctor concept isn’t new. Companies like Teledoc and American Well have been giving patients 24/7 access to doctors via phone and video chats since the early- and mid-2000s. But while those companies offer services through employers or healthcare organizations, newer startups are going straight to the consumer or appealing to them with lighter-weight, simpler options.
Virtual physicians certainly can’t replace an in-person counterpart in many circumstances (they can’t take your blood pressure, run lab tests or other simpler tests, for example). And they may not have a patients’ medical history or the personal context that comes with a doctor-patient relationship developed over time.
But these companies say that for basic questions and ailments – say allergies, skin conditions or sexual health questions – virtual doctors can be enough. Advocates of the concept say tele-health programs save consumers time and potentially money, while easing the burden on a healthcare system that increasingly doesn’t have enough doctors to meet the needs of patients. Skeptics worry that it will compromise the level of care and diminish the value of the doctor-patient relationship. But the trend seems to be picking up. According to a recent Kaiser Health News/USA Today article, tele-health is gaining traction among insurance companies, including Aetna and Cigna.
Many of the startups are local for now, as some state medical boards block the practice of tele-medicine, especially across state lines. But many say they plan to expand nationwide soon. Here are five startups tackling tele-health in different ways:
Just as Netflix, iTunes and Spotify provide instant gratification in entertainment, Ringadoc founder and CEO Jordan Michaels thinks we ought to receive on-demand services in healthcare too. Launched in 2010, the San Francisco-based service charges patients a $40 flat free (slightly more than the average co-pay, Michaels said) to speak with a doctor (who can provide advice, diagnoses and prescriptions) over the phone anytime day or night. This month, it announced that the Founders Fund had invested $750,000 in seed money. The service currently has about 2,000 registered users, who make a couple of hundred calls a month, Michaels said, but he added the company has done very little marketing. Right now, Ringadoc’s network of about 100 licensed doctors is only available to patients in California, but the company plans to expand into more locations over the next six months. Michaels also said that in the coming weeks and months the company will roll out a video chat service, as well as a direct-to-doctor product to give physicians a virtual way to keep in touch with existing patients.
2. Direct Dermatology
The Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup doesn’t provide instant care, but founder David Wong said it cuts down the time patients wait to get a dermatologist consultation from more than one month to two days. For $85 per consultation, users sign on to the site and provide information about their specific question (including their medical history, written description of their skin condition and photographs). Direct Dermatology ensures a response from a board certified dermatologist within two business days, including a prescription if necessary. The service, which has raised $335,000, launched in July 2010, but Wong said it only accepted referrals from primary care physicians until this month. Earlier this year, Direct Dermatology was chosen to be a part of New York health tech incubator Startup Health’s first class of startups.
Launched in 2011, HealthTap connects patients with more than 10,000 licensed physicians nationwide, who provide immediate written answers to medical questions for free via desktop and mobile applications. The Palo Alto-based startup aims to give patients a quick way to access reliable health information and physicians a new avenue for reaching new customers and establishing their reputations. Participating doctors must be approved by the service, and once admitted, they can provide answers, as well as weigh-in on the responses of other doctors. To date, the company has raised nearly $14 million and attracted doctors from top institutions such as Mount Sinai hospital in New York and the Cleveland Clinic.
BreakThrough, a tele-psychiatry service, launched in 2009 at the TechCrunch50 as a direct to consumer service. In the past few years, it’s shifted to provide services through health-care partners but said it plans to support self-pay by September. The Redwood City, Calif.-based startup lets patients search for certified mental-health professionals and schedule appoints conducted via chat, email, phone or a custom HIPAA-compliant video system. At the moment, it only serves California patients, but said it’s on track to be a covered service for three million members by the end of the year.
A newcomer to the field, Sherpaa launched earlier this year to connect people with doctors in New York City. Employers pay the company a flat fee per employee per month and patients receive 24/7 phone and email access to the company’s physicians and specialists (which it calls “guides”) for free. For the past four months, Sherpaa has been working with tumblr with impressive engagement – so far, the company says, 80 percent of tumblr’s employees have used the service. Jay Parkinson, the company’s founder, said it’s still figuring out its expansion plans. Given the local nature of healthcare, he seems to want to take a deliberate approach, but he said once it figures out operations in New York it would make sense to open in other cities.