The doctor will FaceTime you now

Doctor on Demand
Source: Doctor on Demand

Cheaper, more convenient medical care may be within your grasp — assuming, that is, you're reading this on a smartphone.

A growing roster of telehealth apps and Web services are cutting out the hassles of limited office hours and long appointment waits, not to mention the need to drag yourself out of bed when you're under the weather. Patients can usually get feedback from the doctor within minutes, and often for the same price or less than an in-person doctor's office or urgent-care clinic visit.

The list of concerns a virtual visit might address is long and varied. Board-certified physicians at Lemonaid Health, for example, can help with ailments including acid reflux, flu and erectile dysfunction; top conditions treated via Doctor on Demand include urinary tract infections, skin rashes and pinkeye. Looking for a mental health professional? TalkSpace, Breakthrough and Doctor on Demand all offer services.

"Technology is really providing greater access," said Andrew Scholnick, a senior legislative representative on AARP's Federal Health & Family team. Telehealth services aren't just a boon for the busy. They can also be valuable for older adults who might have difficulty getting to the doctor's office, as well are caregivers in search of guidance, he said.

The other big advantage: cost.

In 2015, the average copay among workers covered by health insurance was $24 for a primary care office visit and $37 for a specialty office visit, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Uninsured patients face higher out-of-pocket costs. At both Walgreens and CVS, for example, exams for minor illnesses, injuries and skin conditions start at $89.

To compare, unlimited messaging with a certified therapist via Talkspace costs as little as $19 per week for subscriptions billed quarterly. Lemonaid is a flat $15 per virtual visit, and MDLive (which has a partnership with Walgreens) charges $49 per request. The $20 monthly charge at Curology includes consultations with its dermatology team as well as prescription medication.

Those are just the rack rates. Depending on site partnerships, you could pay even less. Insured consumers might pay the same as they would for an in-network visit, said Dr. Tania Elliott, medical director for Doctor on Demand, which regularly charges $40 for a 15-minute video call with a medical doctor. (Medicare has also expanded its telehealth coverage in recent years.) Some employers also offer reduced-cost or free access as a perk.

Of course, telehealth isn't a cure-all. They may not operate 24/7, or be available in all states.

If it's an emergency, you're better off heading straight to urgent care or the emergency room, said Adam C. Powell, president of health-care consulting firm Payer+Provider Syndicate. The same holds true if you expect to need a medical procedure or tests as part of care.

Most telehealth services treat only a specific list of conditions. "It's more a triage type of system," said Elliott — providers are able to tackle a broad range of nonurgent medical issues and advise consumers who aren't sure how serious their condition is. For example, are stomach pains the result of a virus, or could it be appendicitis?

Before would-be Lemonaid patients can initiate a visit, they see a list of "who we can't help," detailing when they should see a doctor in person, said Dr. Davis Liu, head of service development. (For a suspected case of flu, those circumstances include experiencing flu symptoms for more than 48 hours and severe neck pain with sensitivity to light and sound.)

Others might be referred for in-person care after a physician reviews details of their complaint and medical history, and asks follow-up questions, Liu said. "We don't want to write a prescription if it's not safe," he said.

Do the same due diligence on the telehealth service as you would on your regular doctor, checking credentials, licensing and reviews. Sites that ask for a lot of details about your symptoms and medical history and that use video or voice calls rather than simple messaging are likely to yield better results, Powell said.

"At the end of the day, the quality of the service is determined by the quality of the physician's clinical judgment and the quality of the information which is provided to the physician," he said.

Make your primary care physician aware of any forays into telehealth. "We're always reminding people that whichever doctor they speak with, that they coordinate with their regular general practitioner," said Scholnick. That can further limit the potential for drug interactions or other complications, and lead to better care.

"The app or service should be part of the care team," he said.