Canada Can Learn from the U.S.’s Experience Building Virtual Doctor Apps for Video Consultations

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Virtual Doctor Apps for Video Consultations

Prior to May of this year, if you were walking across the Rainbow Bridge that spans the U.S. and Canada at Niagara Falls and were suddenly struck in the eye by some unknown insect or assailant it might actually be in your interest to crawl stateside.

That’s because once in the U.S. you’d be able to video chat instantly with a doctor via smartphone and get their expert opinion on what might have caused your wound, how to treat it, and whether or not you need to head to the emergency room. You could even have a prescription for an antibiotic treatment written up and emailed to you.

Had you turned northwards you’d have found no such service–and we’re presuming it’s a very slow day at the Falls and there’s no medical aid on hand at either end, ok?

Today you’d have a choice to make, because in May, Ontario became the first Canadian province (or territory) to offer an online service that connects you directly with a doctor through video conferencing.

The new app is called Akira, and its developers would do well to take a look across the Rainbow Bridge and learn from what a decade of virtual doctor apps in the U.S. have taught us about creating a worthwhile virtual medical experience.

Video Conferencing MDs

There are at least a dozen text or video conferencing apps providing different types of medical care or advice available to Americans to access on PCs and smartphones. Just what is available to whom and where gets a little complicated due to state laws and Medicaid/private provider differences.  

But essentially these apps fall along a continuum from the purely text-based, such as Text4Baby; through to personalized services like PingMD; on to public services that provide referrals such as HelloMD; public services that provide consultations, like HealthTap; and finally public services that provide consultations and prescriptions, such as Doctor On Demand.

Akira’s recently announced app lies at the more advanced end of that spectrum.

It allows anyone in Ontario (with the promise of more provinces to follow) the chance to consult a physician through a smartphone video conference link during weekday business hours, as well as on Saturdays.

Users can share their medical history with the doctor–importantly, doctors can’t access this information themselves through the app–and the doctor can advise on treatment, refer them on to a specialist, and even write a prescription that is automatically sent to the user’s local pharmacy.

But two unique offerings make Akira stand out, and offer something new in the field of virtual health.

Something New in Virtual Medicine

Akira has partnered with an unnamed logistics group to offer free home or office delivery of prescriptions.

Beyond being a convenience to people too busy to make it the pharmacy themselves, that service could be a real benefit to people who suffer from mobility restrictions. Be it elderly patients who have trouble readily accessing transport, people with long-term mobility impairments, or people suffering from short-term injury- or surgery- related restrictions, having prescriptions arrive at the doorstep is an obvious way to improve quality of life.

Perhaps more importantly, Akira has installed a payment method that encourages doctors to focus on the quality of care, and not the quantity.

U.S.-based apps have been dominated by pay-per-consultation arrangements that reward doctors for seeing as many patients as possible. This has led to concerns that such apps skew in favoritism toward wealthy patients and patients with low-care needs, and attract doctors incentivized by profits.

Akira’s stable of 750 physicians are instead asked to set aside a day of their week for video conferencing consultations, and are paid by the day, not by the patient. This method promises to reduce the incentive to patient-pick or rush consultations.

App users are in turn charged a flat-rate monthly fee regardless of how often they use the service.

Those improvements are welcome, but there’s still room for some more improvements on what has gone before Akira.

The Future of Video Medicine

No one has yet to fully integrate treatment, beyond a prescription, into one of these video conferencing medical apps, or really push the technology beyond face-to-face communication.

And yet newly-created company Vivid Vision is using virtual reality headgear to treat conditions like lazy eye, and USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies has long been developing virtual reality techniques to provide relief for sufferers of post-traumatic stress.

Why can’t an app like Akira move forward with similar treatment offerings, especially given the recent commercialization of virtual reality headsets?

Why not embrace augmented reality technology that lets patient movements and aptitudes be measured against digital yardsticks and sorted and compared over time?

And why can’t medical apps incorporate the vibrating, flashing, buzzing, and motion-sensitive capabilities of smartphones the way game apps do, and provide a new way for a doctor to make an accurate diagnosis?

Perhaps the Akira developers will learn from what’s currently available, and from what’s currently missing, and bring us something genuinely ground-breaking in the future.

Image Source: Flickr CC User Juhan Sonin

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