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March 11, 2013 at 9:56 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Our Virtual World: Doctor Visits Too?

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

My son loves the game Minecraft - a virtual world full of infinite building blocks. He could sit and play this game all day if I allowed it. If Minecraft is on the table, forget about the plentiful (and tangible) Legos boxed up in his bedroom.

There is an allure to the virtual world; it's cutting-edge, and it's replacing a lot of the physical aspects of our daily lives, but can it replace medicine? New data is emerging on a virtual medical clinic that has already served thousands. I'd like to examine both sides of this potential new wave in the field of medicine.


Virtuwell was established in 2010 and has logged more than 96,000 patient visits in that short time. Patients can visit the website and receive care for 40 different problems. A brief questionnaire is completed to provide more information about the problem and collect information concerning health history, medications, and allergies. The data is reviewed by a nurse practitioner who writes a treatment plan, which is then delivered to the patient (usually within several minutes). If needed, the nurse practioner will contact the patient by phone to discuss the issue further. Reportedly, this happens on about half of the "visits." If a prescription is warranted, it's sent electronically to a pharmacy of the patient's chosing.

Support for Virtual Medicine

Medicine is in crisis; affordable and accessible care is hard to come by for many in America. But, perhaps, technology can help. Virtuwell is accessible 24/7 from the comforts of a person's own home. Also, Virtuwell is, relatively speaking, a financial bargain at only $40 a visit. This is roughly half of the cost of a traditional medical office and a fraction of the cost of an emergency room visit.

Criticism of Virtual Medicine

Medical problems are often hard to put into a box. By-and-large, doctors use most of their senses to formulate a well-thought-out diagnosis. This includes a variety of senses, including touch, in addition to sight and sound. Indeed, at least half of Virtuwell patients required care at another venue. Critics of the service further add that patients who begin with virtual medicine often bounce to another place in a system where communication is sparse among different sights. Thus, tests and services will likely be duplicated - actually increasing costs.

In Conclusion...

Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. For some, not much attention is needed with simple medical problems. For many, however, medical problems are potentially complex (often unknowingly).

A professor told me long ago in my training that I would be a better doctor if I made it a point to touch my patients each and every time they come into my office. "Touch is part of therapy," he reasoned. Time and market forces will tell the importance of this notion as the virtual realm delves in medicine.

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