Doctors are making house calls again — sort of. They’ll come to your kitchen or living room and give you a checkup, but they won’t actually be there. They’ll be live via the Web.  

Welcome to the age of virtual doctor visits.

An early foray into this new world is Medzed, a Web-based doctoring service that started recently in Atlanta, offering house calls and basic checkups for children in the metro area. Unlike some Web doctoring services, Medzed isn’t run through an employer or insurance company. It’s more like the Web version of urgent care, and it costs about the same per visit: $150, out of pocket.

How to see a virtual doctor

There are basically three ways you can see a doctor online. Most appealing perhaps, to those with a regular physician, is simply to connect with your usual doctor via the Web. Unfortunately, not many doctors formally see their patients that way. According to 2013 statistics from American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), that translates to about 1.6 e-visits per week, but the number is rising. And in recent years, 39 percent of doctors have reported communicating with patients in some way via the Internet, up from only 16 percent a few years earlier. Insurers are paying more doctors for this sort of service, though at a lower rate than for office visits.

You can also find a virtual doctor via your employer or insurer — again, only if they offer the service. And more are following suit. Such services are becoming more widespread and increasingly have the support of the insurance industry, which generally seems willing to pay for them.

One site that offers this option is LiveHealth Online, which is available in nearly every state through insurers like BlueCross BlueShield. LiveHealth, like many larger web doctor services, promotes the notion of having “a doctor by your side 24/7.”

If you don't have either option, you can go to an independent company like Medzed. Call them, explain your child's issue and they’ll send a pediatric nurse to your door. After a brief exam and a few questions, the nurse will connect online with one of Medzed's four Georgia-based doctors, who then takes over the exam via live streaming video chat.

If necessary, the doctor can move beyond video interaction for certain parts of the exam. Various devices allow doctors to do things like check a patient’s heartbeat. Doctors also can ask the nurse to give other diagnostic information throughout the exam. In most cases, the doctor can provide a diagnosis in a few minutes, and then call in medicine to a nearby pharmacy.

doctor's office waiting room

Busy people like virtual doctors because they can skip crowded waiting rooms. (Photo: Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock)

Why people like digital doctors

The popularity of Medzed and other so-called “digital visit” services is being driven mostly by busy schedules and simplified technology, as well as by the expansion of health insurance resulting from the Affordable Care Act. But the ease and availability of such services has a time-saving appeal for everyone — especially busy parents — since ER and doctor office visits are incredibly time-consuming.

Emergency room wait times in the Atlanta area, for instance, range from a half hour to well over three. And that’s just the time spent in the waiting room. All in all, total time spent at the ER — from when you enter the hospital to when you leave — averages two hours and 18 minutes in the United States.

Wait times at doctor’s offices aren’t quite so bad, with an average wait time of 21 minutes last year. But that was up 6 percent from the year before. And such yearly increases seem to be part of a trend, with wait times getting longer as doctors take on more patients.

But are “webcam doctors” the future of medicine? It’s too early to know the answer, but companies like Medzed hint at a trend. Virtual doctor services are on their way to the mainstream — especially since insurers and employers may be willing to pay for them, according to The Wall Street Journal.

For anyone suffering from a common, generally minor health issue, a digital visit may be just what the doctor ordered. But what if you have a more serious health issue? That’s when you take the old-fashioned route and go visit a flesh-and-blood doctor — hopefully without a long, miserable wait time.  

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