webcam-based doctorsIt’s a situation many Americans face at least once every year — you have a busy day ahead of you but woke up feeling sick. You know you should probably visit a doctor, but that means taking time off of work or otherwise disrupting your schedule. The doctor’s office will be crowded and potentially expose you to other germs, and the wait will probably be much longer than anticipated. What if there was a way to visit with a doctor without having to miss work or spend time in a waiting room? That’s where telemedicine comes in. Not exactly a new phenomenon, instances of doctors seeing patients via webcam are increasing — 52% of hospitals used telehealth services in 2013 and another 10% were beginning to implement it. In addition to standalone telehealth services, insurance companies like Anthem and Kaiser Permanente as well as pharmacies like Walgreens are partnering with online services to offer e-visits with webcam-based doctors to patients all across the country. It’s highly convenient since patients can access it via smartphone, tablet or computer from virtually anywhere. But is it safe?

Why would I want to see a webcam-based doctor?

The list of potential benefits to patients is seemingly endless: doctors are available after hours (or 24/7 in most cases) with these services, so you can speak to someone in the middle of the night or after work when most offices have been long closed, it can be much cheaper than an ER or urgent care visit and rural patients can save on gas and time while getting the medical advice they need. Webcam-based doctor visits are not meant for emergency needs or conditions that require ongoing care; however, they are perfect for common, acute problems such as sore throats, rashes, colds and allergies. In many states, doctors can even prescribe medication and send it straight to your preferred pharmacy for immediate pickup.

Additionally, telemedicine doesn’t only benefit patients. A recent study published by the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a shortage of between 46,000 and 90,000 doctors over the next decade. This means medical offices will be far more swamped and patients will have a harder time getting in to see their doctor (or finding a primary care physician in the first place). Doctors can benefit from visiting patients online, and the medical industry can save money overall by putting a focus on e-visits for minor issues.

What should I keep in mind if I want to use these services?

This technology is still relatively new, and that means patients who wish to use it need to exercise caution. If your insurance does not offer webcam-based doctor visits, you should find out whether it offers any kind of reimbursement for using these services. If not, proceed with caution if you choose to use a third-party website or program. The same goes for those without insurance who wish to use these services. You can potentially save quite a bit of money compared to an ER or urgent care visit, but it’s a good idea to make sure all fees are explained upfront before you provide any of your information and get online for an appointment.

Additionally, it’s vital to ensure that you know whether the website or computer software will protect your video call, medical records and privacy. Medical identity theft is a big threat right now, and you could potentially put yourself at risk if you use a website that is less-than-legitimate. Read through the website’s privacy policy and don’t be afraid to contact the service directly to ask questions. You may also want to be sure that the site will share your medical records with your primary care physician, if requested. Finally, not all services are covered by webcam-based doctors. Make sure you read through and find out whether your issue can or cannot be treated before you agree to pay for a visit.