SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Dr. Anna Nguyen spoke with none of the five patients she treated on a recent weekday morning. She didn’t even leave her dining room.
The emergency physician nevertheless helped a pregnant Ohio woman handle hip pain, examined a Michigan man’s sore throat and texted a mom whose son became sick during a family trip to Mexico.
Welcome to the latest wrinkle in health care convenience: the chat diagnosis.
Nguyen’s company, CirrusMD, can connect patients with a doctor in less than a minute. But such fast service comes with a catch: The patient probably won’t see or talk to the doctor, because most communication takes place via secure messaging.
“We live in a consumer-driven world, and I think that consumers are becoming accustomed to being able to access all types of service with their thumbs,” CirrusMD co-founder Dr. Blake McKinney said.
CirrusMD and rivals like 98point6 and K Health offer message-based treatment for injuries or minor illnesses normally handled by a doctor’s office or clinic. They say they’re even more convenient than the video telemedicine that many employers and insurers now offer, because patients accustomed to Uber-like convenience can text with a doctor while riding a bus or waiting in a grocery store line.
Millions of Americans have access to these services. The companies are growing thanks to a push to improve care access, keep patients healthy and limit expensive emergency room visits. Walmart’s Sam’s Club, for instance, recently announced that it would offer 98point6 visits as part of a customer care program it is testing.
But some doctors worry about the quality of care provided by physicians who won’t see their patients and might have a limited medical history to read before deciding treatment.
“If the business opportunity is huge, there’s a risk that that caution is pushed aside,” said Dr. Thomas Bledsoe, a member of the American College of Physicians.
Message-based care providers say they take steps to ensure safety and recommend in-person doctor visits when necessary. Nguyen, for instance, once urged an 85-year-old woman who contacted CirrusMD about crushing chest pain to head to an emergency room.
These companies note that a thorough medical history is not crucial for every case. They also say doctors don’t always need vital signs like temperature and blood pressure, but they can coach patients through taking them if necessary. Doctors also can opt for a video or phone conversation when needed.
Even so, the companies estimate they can resolve more than 80% of their cases through messaging.