Small Study Shows Virtual Doctor Visits Can Prove Effective

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It's up for debate whether Internet helps or hurts doctors' ability to treat patients. While sites like WebMD bring out the hypochondriac in us all, researchers out of a hospital clinic in Barcelona may have found a way that the Web and medicine can mesh. This week, they presented results of their telemedicine program "Hospital VIHrtual," which successfully treated HIV patients using an Internet-based home care system.

The team cared for 200 HIV patients over five years, providing consultations via the Internet. The results of the study show that the medical, psychological and pharmaceutical needs for the participants were met as satisfactorily as those required by in-person visitors.

The virtual hospital reduces the amount of face-time patients have with doctors, moving many routine doctor-patient interactions online. The program facilitates consultations via Webcam and e-mail; offers online medication management; provides access to accurate information about the disease, medications, side effects, news and innovations; and plugs patients into a virtual community, which connects them to health professionals and others who share their illness.

The e-system not only cares for patients with the same effectiveness as in-person visits, but it saves money. Logging onto a site for an e-consult is easier and faster than rearranging one's life around routine (and costly) trips to the hospital.

It also directly combats the issues spawned by WebMD-esque information overload. Unlike the unmonitored data that proliferates the very wide world of the Web, Hospital VIHrtual provides a more intimate -- and curated -- experience. An HIV-positive person with any ache or pain can stumble onto WebMD's HIV page and conclude that they've contracted some sort of harmful illness, freak out and book an unnecessary visit to the doctor.

On the other hand, those with access to the virtual hospital know they're looking at useful data collected by relevant healthcare providers. Not only can patients avoid ingesting inaccurate information but they can also find useful answers to any questions or fears they might have obtained from within the vetted community.

As America attempts to reduce its healthcare costs, some -- including President Obama, who allocated $1.2 billion to convert paper medical records into electronic documents -- have looked to technology to eradicate unnecessary spending. Many believe digitization will help cut inefficiencies, like unnecessary doctor's visits, for example. This program, while only a small one, demonstrates how the digital world might be used to effectively treat a patient group and cut costs at the same time.

Image: Hospital Virtual.

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Rebecca Greenfield is a former staff writer at The Wire.

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