Would you be satisfied if the only way you saw your doctor was through a computer screen?

As strange as it may seem, there is an increasing number of people – and physicians – who are dealing with each other in just this way and the trend for this type of doctor/patient interaction is growing.

While many people are familiar with the use of the Internet to research ailments and treatments, the next giant leap for mankind takes this much further. The very first medical websites first started appearing in the late 1990s and the number of people who are using them has increased exponentially. By some estimates more than 80 percent of people in the United States alone go online to search for health information. Internationally, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can tap into online information about various diseases and conditions, and learn about the medications and other treatments commonly – and sometimes not so commonly – used prescribed to combat them.

People Report Being Satisfied With Online Physician Assistance

Many people who go online to get information are satisfied by their experience. Some 48 percent of these health seekers say the advice they found on the Web has improved the way they take care of themselves; and 55 percent say access to the Internet has improved the way they get medical and health information [1]. And 92 percent of health seekers say the information they found during their last online search was useful; 81 percent said they learned something new. Almost half of those who sought health information for themselves during their last online search say the material affected their decisions about treatments and care. Half of these health seekers say the information influenced the way they eat and exercise.

But, the idea of your health questions, diagnoses, and a treatment by a physician being done entirely online is a relatively new twist to the online experience. These "online clinics" can connect customers directly with experienced practitioners who can treat them safely - and very conveniently - wherever they are. At least that is what some of these online clinics promise. [A]

For example, in some U.S. states, like Minnesota and Wisconsin an online clinic called virtuwell.com has board-certified nurse practitioners who offer professional health care anytime - days, nights and weekends, 365 days a year. The service is available to anyone, including children over age two. The site is owned by a large nonprofit health care organization called HealthPartners. The company touts its personalized diagnoses, treatment plans, and also offers prescriptions if needed. All this, says the company, “in less than a half-hour."

And in 2011 the online physician practice got a huge boost when the Rite Aid chain of pharmacies offered customers the chance to talk to a virtual doctor for $45 for a 10-minute chat.

In a simpler, more basic iteration a number of medical personnel are using web chat services like Skype to see and talk with their patients and help them with simple services and discussions. Of course, the customer/patient needs to have a computer with Internet access and a web camera to get things started. Research conducted in 2011 by Manhattan Research showed that seven percent of doctors in the U.S. use online video conferencing to communicate with their patients, and the trend, they say, is growing. And insurers have even given the seal of approval for virtual doctor’s care. Companies such as Aetna and Cigna cover virtual visits, and some will even be establishing their own virtual physician websites in the near future.

Virtual DoctorCredit: Lisa Eastman via Flikr

How Does It Work?

Online clinics say they will treat most common medical conditions, including acne, bladder infections, yeast infections, colds, coughs, allergies, flu, lice, pink eye, sinus infections, and rashes and other skin irritations. From there the process includes a thorough medical interview, and in some cases, a user-submitted picture of themselves or their condition as well. More serious problems still require the afflicted to get themselves to a physician’s office or hospital. But for lesser problems the online clinic’s no-appointment, 24-hour availability is tempting. What is also tempting is the promised lower costs associated with online clinics. Some estimates suggest an online doctor’s visit could cost between $25 to $50, compared with the $100 to $125 it might cost for a face-to-face office visit.

The boom in online clinics is also creating a business model whereby companies set up what is known as “tele-med” services for doctors and medical professionals. Etelmed.com, for example, is one company that offers physicians “a single source solution that incorporates all of the necessary components to successfully implement a tele-health program.”

Will It Catch On?

It may be too early to know if online medical chats and treatment will ever get to the point of replacing to any great extent the in-office with a physician experience. At best, most experts agree, the online service will complement the in-office visit and make it more convenient for both the doctor and the patient.

There has been some research that suggests the online route is beneficial. One such study reported 85 percent of patients who were surveyed in a telemedicine program said that a virtual hospital improved their access to clinical data and that they felt comfortable with the videoconference system [2].

But, there are hurdles to overcome. Questions of privacy and security are being raised. Also being discussed is whether the ease of online treatment may make people too eager to go online and inundate medical professionals with help for minor conditions (although what is minor to one person, may not be to another). Also, the online option may be easier for insurers who may insist people utilize the service while making it more difficult to actually visit a physician if that is really what a patient would prefer to do.

The growth of, and benefit of, online clinics and healthcare is still a topic for discussion in the medical community and the public at large. But, it appears the practice is here to stay, albeit with some bugs yet to be straightened out. As more of the population becomes more comfortable with using a computer for everyday needs and with discussing personal issues in cyberspace the impact of online clinics and virtual doctors will continue to grow.


[A] There is a website named onlineclinics.com which is primarily a marketing service for clinics, clinicians and patients who are looking for healthcare services. This is not what is the topic of this article is about.


[1] The Health Privacy Project: The Institute for Health Care Research and Policy

[2] León A, Cáceres C, Fernández E, Chausa P, Martin M, et al. (2011) A New Multidisciplinary Home Care Telemedicine System to Monitor Stable Chronic Human Immunodeficiency Virus-Infected Patients: A Randomized Study. PLoS ONE 6(1): e14515. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0014515