Physicians Slowly Embrace Patient Videoconferencing

Seven percent of U.S. doctors now conduct video chats with patients, even if they still shun email interactions, according to a survey by Manhattan Research.
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It may not sound like a lot, but the finding by Manhattan Research that 7% of practicing physicians in the U.S. communicate with patients via online videoconferencing might actually represent a significant breakthrough.

"It's high, given the [anemic] use of other channels for electronic communication," Monique Levy, vice president of research for the New York-based organization, said in an interview. "When you look at it in context of what else they're using, it's a sizeable number."

As it traditionally has, Manhattan Research is parceling out data elements in small chunks from its 11th annual "Taking the Pulse" survey of more than 2,000 doctors, and hasn't yet released anything related to other forms of electronic patient-physician communication. This is the first year the survey has asked physicians about videoconferencing with patients, however.

"It's a very difficult market to make any sense out of," Levy said.

One thing that did stand out is that those in certain specialties such as psychiatry and oncology that don't necessarily require a tactile exam for non-urgent and follow-up care were more likely to embrace videoconferencing with patients. In the case of psychiatry, the technology can help extend counseling services to communities that lack access to specialists.

Manhattan Research reported that those physicians who don't communicate online with patients cited HIPAA concerns, liability, and lack of reimbursement for their reluctance to do so. Teleconferencing could help break down some of those barriers, though.

Levy surmised that physicians may be more amenable to video chats than email communication through secure portals for two reasons. "It reintroduces the face-to-face element that is missing from email," she said, a feature that "may take physicians one degree closer" to an in-person exam.

Plus, Levy said the survey indicated that most patients don't record video chats with their doctors, which may help to mitigate physician fears that electronic conversations with patients could be used against them in a malpractice suit. Online portals that facilitate secure email tend to save a record of all communications and often add the transcript to electronic medical records, according to Levy.

Barbara Duck, author of The Medical Quack blog, recently coined the phrase "redneck telehealth" to describe a ad-hoc chat between patient and doctor over Skype. Duck described a conversation she had with a friend who had an outbreak of gout on his foot just before he was to board an international flight. "He had called his doctor, who was not set up with any of the new telehealth programs and software that is just now becoming available, so I said, 'Get your doctor on Skype and put your foot up there for him to see,'" Duck wrote.

Earlier this month, Manhattan Research released other findings from Taking the Pulse showing that 81% of U.S. physicians owned a smartphone--up from 72% in 2010 and 50% in 2007--and 30% had an iPad. Another 28% plan to acquire an iPad within the next six months, the survey said. It's a good bet that few doctors are ready for mobile teleconferencing, though.

Levy said that just one in 10 physician iPad owners are using the Apple tablet to communicate with patients, though the survey did not ask for specifics. However, she said, "We're not yet at the point where the iPad is being used as a platform for videoconferencing."

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Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Writer