The virtual housecall and being an online doctor

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Since its birth a few months ago, Dr Sicknote has been providing online medical certificates to people all across Australia. As one of the GPs involved in providing this new service, it’s been a really interesting learning curve. In the 7 years since I qualified as a GP, social media and online communication apps such as Skype have boomed and online connectivity has skyrocketed. But when I studied medicine, being a doctor was based very much in the old school “bedside” tradition.  The concept of an online doctor was not really “on the radar” at that point.  So when Dr Sicknote opened its virtual doors, I wasn’t sure how it would feel to assess patients via a screen. I remembered the mantra drilled into us as medical students- that over 80% of diagnoses could be made on history alone, a further 5-10% on examination and the remainder on investigation. So I knew it was safe and appropriate in many cases to treat patients based on a good history alone. But how would it feel to do that job via a screen?

Well, I’ve actually found it to be a very rewarding experience. When a patient is sitting comfortably in their own home, I think they often feel more relaxed and at ease. In the course of exploring the patient’s needs we often have interesting conversations about their occupation and where they live.  (In the past couple of weeks, for instance, there’s been a private investigator, an engineer working in a remote location, an optometrist, a banker, a flight attendant – from a wide variety of locations across Australia- so it’s been a pretty interesting and diverse cross section of society! ) I did wonder beforehand if the personal connection might be lacking- but I have found that an online consultation can actually be a very personal experience- in fact it’s a house call of sorts- though in a virtual form. I think, as patients and doctors become more comfortable with it, online medicine is very likely to become a “new normal”. It won’t be suitable in every situation- but used wisely it can go a long way to improving convenience, reducing healthcare costs, and giving people more choice in how they access the healthcare they need.

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