The future of health care is already here. Today, right now, you can download an app, have a “virtual appointment” with a physician and obtain medical advice, often including a prescription medication, within a couple minutes. This is fantastic, mostly. No more spending the entire morning taking your child to the pediatrician’s office to determine whether a cut needs sutures or to receive reassurance regarding a common rash, and perhaps no more driving several hours to a major medical center to have a specialist consultation with a leading physician.
Health care forecasters predict there will be 75 million mobile health (mHealth) consults in the United States this year, a number up 400 percent from 2012. Patients are demanding this service. Being able to rapidly and conveniently connect with your doctor or a needed specialist in communication with your doctor is a remarkable improvement to be celebrated.
In North Carolina, unfortunately, mHealth is not being used frequently to connect patients to their own doctors. Rather, patients are connecting to a physician in another state whose only job is to take calls from across the country and prescribe the medications the patients are requesting. Although licensed in N.C., these physicians don’t know the patients, have no access to their medical records and don’t plan on communicating with the patient’s physician.
This is dangerous. Improved access does not mean just making it easier to get sometimes dangerous prescription medications. It should mean improved access to excellent care that is integrated with the patient’s overall health care plan.
As a North Carolina physician and medical professor advising a local startup company, TouchCare, that connects patients to their own doctors using their smart phones, I feel strongly that there are some important things to consider as we incorporate mHealth in our state.
mHealth is here to stay. In a world where my children read their bedtime stories to their grandmother over Facetime and where the number of Americans needing health care is increasing faster than the number of physicians, the convenience and efficiency brought by connecting to your doctor and needed specialists using video technology are too important not to embrace them. We need, however, to ensure that we embrace them safely.
By focusing on secure communications, supporting local physicians to incorporate mHealth into their practices and ensuring that medical records created are shared with the patient’s other doctors, we will incorporate mHealth in a manner that serves and protects the people of North Carolina.
Kevin Biese, M.D., is associate professor of Emergency Medicine at the UNC School of Medicine in Chapel Hill.