More doctors using webcams for house calls

Bad winter weather, choked highways, overbooked schedules -- these are all reasons more and more doctors are relying on webcam technology to keep an eye on patients.

On January 2, health news website MyHealthDaily reported on the trend, citing a range of practitioners, from plastic surgeons to psychiatrists, relying on video conferencing technology to keep tabs on patients, provide emergency evaluations, or offer consultations.

California chronic pain and drug abuse specialist Dr. Gregory Smith said in the article that using Skype has enabled him to save 350 to 500 appointments a year due to bad weather alone. "It's almost as good as being there," said Smith, whose two clinics in Los Angeles and Fresno have more than 1,300 patients.

Other web-camera benefits include allowing doctors to quickly check in with patients, or let sick patients keep their germs at home rather than bring them to an office. Also, plastic surgeons and other specialists can offer e-consultations with patients hundreds of kilometers away. Psychiatrists and mental health counselors can video chat with patients between appointments.

Other doctors, however, criticize the practice, citing the nuances in medical care that can only be conveyed during face-to-face interactions. Also licensing laws differ by country and, in some cases, region or state, and a doctor in the US state of California, for example, couldn't provide medical consultation via webcam to a patient outside his or her home state. Also, doctors must ensure communication is secure and encrypted in a way that abides by local laws set to ensure patient privacy. 

The report states that it's difficult to cite exactly how many doctors now use webcams in their practices, or how widespread the practice is around the globe "because no agency tracks or requires doctors to report webcam use," cited Gary Capistrant, senior director of public policy at the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) in the article. But "it's absolutely increasing," he said, "and now that you've got those 4G phones where you can video conference from your cell phone, it's going to be much more common."

Another spin on house calls is a service called Stat Doctors, which uses a secure single sign-on, electronic health records, e-prescribing, and video conferencing to give patients 24-7 access to emergency physicians to address common, minor medical issues.

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