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Where Does It Hurt? Log On. The Doctor Is In

5-9-2014 National:

Telemedicine Sector Attracts Funding, But Some Physician Groups Worry About Quality of Care

Can downloading an app, and describing your symptoms to a doctor you'll never meet, take the place of an office visit? Can sending a "selfie" of your sore throat help diagnose strep?

Those are some of the issues state and federal regulators—and the medical profession itself—are wrestling with as telemedicine spreads rapidly.

More Web-based companies offer virtual medical exams where doctors in remote locations evaluate patients' symptoms online or by phone, develop a diagnosis and often write a prescription, usually in 15 minutes or less, for $40 to $50.

The companies say they provide a convenient, low-cost alternative to emergency-room visits and long waits at primary-care offices for minor medical issues. Three of the companies—Teladoc Inc., MDLIVE Inc. and American Well—hosted 400,000 to 500,000 doctor-patient interactions last year, more than double the number in 2011, according to the American Telemedicine Association, a trade group.

Investors are betting that more Americans will like getting medical care 24/7 without leaving home or work. The telehealth sector has attracted $272 million in venture-capital funding since 2010—including $79 million in the last quarter, according to Mercom Capital Group, a health IT research firm.

"Politicians and lobbyists can't solve health care. It's quite simple: Empower consumers with patient-in-control solutions," says John Sculley, former Apple CEO and vice chairman of MDLIVE, which netted $24 million in new funding this year.

Doctor on Demand launched in December with $3 million in seed funding from Google Ventures and other investors. Its co-founder is Jay McGraw, executive producer of the talk show "The Doctors," and son of psychologist Dr. Phil.

Many health plans think such services will provide savings, and cover most or all of the cost for their members. As of last year, 11% of large employers offered telemedicine services to their employees and 28% were considering it, according to consulting firm Mercer. ..Continued.. by Melinda Beck

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