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Can I see you now? The rise of the virtual doctor

Is technology finally beginning to change the private healthcare model? For many years the model has remained the same. You sign up for a private  medical insurance scheme and pay your monthly subscription. When you need to use your private healthcare, you go to your GP, he recommends a consultant , you get a private referral letter and off you go for your first consultation. Maybe, along the way, the insurance company re-directs you to a consultant whom they are prepared to fund... But generally, the route to a private consultant has changed little over the years.

Direct to doctor mobile apps lead the way

We are now beginning to see a plethora of "direct to doctor" mobile applications that enable patients to get immediate access to paid for consultation and diagnosis. One of the first companies on the scene was babylon, a healthcare venture launched by Ali Parsa, a former investment banker and one of the founders of Circle. babylon was the first organisation of its kind to be registered with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and to receive designated body status from the NHS England. It’s an app based system that gives subscribers low cost private healthcare. Subscribers get secure and confidential access to a panel of experienced private GPs and Consultants, as well as clinical monitoring, anywhere, at any time via their mobile device (iPhone or Android). babylon describe it as “your own health service in your pocket.”

The service works on a subscription or a “pay as you go” basis.  For £7.99 per month you get daytime access (8am-8pm, 6 days a week) to advice from a private GP or nurse. Users also have the option to have pay-as-you-go GP consultations at £24 per session. Need a video consultation with one of the consultants on their panel? Then that’s an additional £49 for the consultation. Need a face to face consultation or a test, x-ray or prescription? Then you pay on a price per item for the service delivered through one of babylon’s partners.

Diagnosis by video

Latest on the scene is Push Doctor, which launched in July 2015. Patients pay to be connected with a qualified UK doctor via a computer, smartphone or tablet. Costs start from £25 for a ten-minute consultation and increase to £40 to 20 minutes and £55 for a maximum of 30 minutes. The venture has received $1.5m in seed funding. The founder, Eren Ozagir says that 7,000 GPs have registered , making it one of Europe's fastest growing network of UK doctors, and that more than that 89 per cent of the time Push Doctor patients can be diagnosed and assisted without the need for follow-up treatment.

Will the giants follow the minnows?

So, will the major private healthcare providers follow the trend? Will we see BMI, Nuffield, Spire or Ramsay short-circuiting the traditional referral route and putting their preferred consultants online to extend their service offering and provide advice direct to the paying patient?  Such change is usually stimulated by the success of innovative, start up entrepreneurs as we have seen with babylon and Push Doctor.  They won't find it easy... will enough people actually pay to see a virtual doctor?

But don't be surprised to see the giants of private healthcare following the trend, if the concept of the virtual doctor finally gets off the ground. 

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Can I see you now? The rise of the virtual doctor

About the author

Keith Pollard is CEO of Intuition Communication, an online publisher in the healthcare sector that operates market-leading web portals such as Private Healthcare UK, the Harley Street Guide, HarleyStreet.com and Surgery Door. Intuition is also active in the online medical travel sector through Treatment Abroad, International Medical Travel Journal and DoctorInternet, the Arabic medical tourism portal. View www.keithpollard.com for my full profile.

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