Several factors are to blame.
The biggest, and most important, is that many U.S. consumers are still not aware they have the option to chat with their doctor over the phone or via video.
"The awareness piece is a big problem," admits Ian Tong, a physician and the chief medical officer at Doctor On Demand, an app that offers smartphone consultations for $75. Tong believes that part of the problem is the branding of the term "telemedicine," which isn't particularly descriptive, so he's opting to use the term "video visits" instead when he talks to patients about it.
Another setback: Patients heard of telemedicine apps often fear the expense, especially if it's unclear whether they can use their health insurance. And in some cases, the apps are offering cash prices that are out of reach. $75 might be a stretch for some.
Another common theme is that the doctors who are willing to work with app makers are inexperienced, or low-quality. Companies like Doctor on Demand will say they go out of their way to vet — and pay for — the best clinicians. But there is some merit to this concern, especially with the lower-quality services.
In 2016, researchers posing as patients turned to 16 different telemedicine apps to diagnose skin issues. The results? Some of the online doctors misdiagnosed conditions like syphilis, others prescribed unnecessary meds, and two of the sites used doctors who aren't licensed to practice in the state the patient was located. The authors concluded that these apps repeatedly missed diagnoses by failing to ask simple, relevant questions.
Finally, even in the digital age, a lot of people simply want to see their doctor in person. They're not Luddites. But sick, vulnerable people often need in-person reassurance from another human being in the room. A smartphone app simply won't cut it.