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Doctors are now chatting up their patients

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The Times Of India
10th October, 2019 08:46 IST

SACREMENTO: Dr Anna Nguyen spoke with none of the five patients she treated on a recent weekday morning. She didn’t even leave her dining room.

The emergency physician nevertheless helped a pregnant Ohio woman handle hip pain, examined a Michigan man’s sore throat and texted a mom whose son became sick during a family trip to Mexico.

Welcome to the latest wrinkle in health care convenience: the chat diagnosis . Nguyen’s company, CirrusMD, can connect patients with a doctor in less than a minute. But such fast service comes with a catch: The patient probably won’t see or talk to the doctor, because most communication takes place via secure messaging.

“We live in a consumer-driven world, and I think that consumers are becoming accustomed to being able to access all types of service with their thumbs,” CirrusMD co-founder Blake McKinney said.

CirrusMD and rivals like 98point6 and K Health offer message-based treatment for injuries or minor illnesses normally handled by a doctor’s office or clinic. They say they’re even more convenient than the video telemedicine that many employers and insurers now offer, because patients accustomed to Uber-like convenience can text with a doctor while riding a bus or waiting in a grocery store line.

Millions of Americans have access to these services. The companies are growing thanks to a push to improve care access, keep patients healthy and limit expensive emergency room visits. Walmart’s Sam’s Club, for instance, recently announced that it would offer 98point6 visits as part of a customer care programme it is testing.

But some doctors worry about the quality of care provided by physicians who won’t see their patients and might have a limited medical history to read before deciding treatment. “If the business opportunity is huge, there’s a risk that that caution is pushed aside,” said Dr Thomas Bledsoe, a member of the American College of Physicians.

Nguyen said she enjoys this type of care because the format gives her more time with patients. “I think patients will like it a lot because most really hate going to their doctor,” she said referring to the hassle of setting an appointment, getting to the office and then waiting for the visit.

Some patients simply don’t have time for all that.

98point6 customers first describe their symptoms to a chatbot that uses a computer programme to figure out what to ask. That information is then passed to a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

These companies say their doctors often answer an array of quick questions as well provide care. Nguyen had a Louisiana woman send her a picture of her thumb, which she punctured cleaning out a chicken coop, just to see if the doctor thought it might need attention.

Virtual care like this also might lead to antibiotic overprescribing , said Dr Ateev Mehrotra. The Harvard researcher said it’s probably easier for a doctor who knows a patient to explain face to face why they don’t need a medicine.

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