What It’s Like to Use Telemedicine as a Patient

A recent study found the vast majority (82 percent) of young adults age 18 to 34 say having a consultation with their physician on a mobile device would be the best option for them.

On Thursday, I found out I probably agree with most of my peers.

I tested out a mobile app from American Well, a telemedicine company that offers remote physician consults for minor, acute conditions. I wasn’t sick, but the public relations representative from American Well assured me I wouldn’t be disturbing their physicians.

So I downloaded the app to my smartphone, created a passcode and entered my basic personal information and then was taken to a “Choose Your Provider” screen. Available physicians in my state of Illinois, along with their pictures and specialties, were listed. I selected the first on the list, Ingrid Antall, MD. The app prompted me to describe my condition (I confessed to being a journalist), select a pharmacy for prescriptions and enter my credit card information for the $49 charge for the 10-minute consult (I tested the app for free, and users can enter their insurance information if their plans cover the service).

The first attempt to connect me to Dr. Antall failed, though it was more than likely due to my wireless Internet connection. On my second attempt I was connected, and was able to see Dr. Antall at the bottom of a split screen.

We talked for a bit, and she told me what usually happens during these consults. She said the online visits are similar to office visits — she takes the patient’s history and then conducts a physical exam.

Of course, a telemedicine physical exam is slightly different. Dr. Antall said she’ll have sinus infection patients touch their own necks and cheeks and report what they feel, and patients with stomach troubles will examine their own abdomen. “Most people have never really examined themselves like that before,” she said. “It’s fun for them.” She also said a lack of medical supplies where the patients are occasionally necessitates creativity, like having patients use the smartphone light to help Dr. Antall see down their throats.

I asked if patients ever seem to have trouble examining themselves, or if she ever feels like she can’t trust what they report to her. “You have to trust the patient,” she said, explaining that even during an in-person consult a physician is trusting the patient to accurately describe how he or she feels, or their medical history. The physician-patient communication is always the most important thing, she said, online or off.

The fact that Dr. Antall was in a two-inch square on my smartphone screen didn’t take away from that communication. I was able to make eye contact, and she wasn’t distracted by entering information into an electronic medical record — maybe because I wasn’t conveying any medical information, but most likely because she was already looking at a computer.

It was also incredibly convenient. I was connected to Dr. Antall within two minutes of downloading the app, and realized it was something I could do anywhere — at least anywhere I was comfortable self-examining my throat or stomach. Dr. Antall said the convenience is what most patients appreciate the most. “I’ve had patients who were obviously pulled over at the side of the road who told me they were going to go to the emergency room but then thought of me,” she said. “Then I could tell them they didn’t need to spend five hours in the ER.”

I enjoyed speaking with Dr. Antall, and felt I had built a rapport with her from our brief conversation. Though, when I logged into the app later I noticed she wasn’t available. I know that had Dr. Antall taken notes or updated my record in American Well, the next physician would be able to access them, and even if for some reason he or she couldn’t, a sinus infection probably doesn’t require extensive medical history to diagnose.

Telemedicine like American Well is designed not to replace in-person physician visits and the relationships that develop between patients and their caregivers, but to solve the problem of long emergency department waits and overcrowded physician offices. And I think it will succeed.

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