Putting the ‘app’ in appointment: More opting to teleconsult a doctor

Rising trend of such services, with at least seven available in S'pore

If you are feeling under the weather, getting well again is as easy as picking up the phone to teleconsult a doctor and having medication delivered straight to your doorstep.

More people are saying goodbye to long queues at the clinic, opting instead for medical care from the convenience of their home, office, or even on the train.

The draw is the quick and convenient service that lets patients skip the commute and the queue at the clinic, said companies that provide telemedicine services.

A teleconsultation works simply: A patient downloads a telemedicine app, creates an account and, after answering a few questions, will be connected to a doctor via video link on his device.

The cost of a video consult varies with each provider, but is around $20 (not including medication), although some providers have peak period surcharges.

In the last two years, more firms offering these services have sprung up, joining established players like MyDoc, Doctor Anywhere, MaNaDr and Speedoc. It is estimated that there are at least seven telemedicine services available in Singapore.

Doctor World, which was launched in January, has round-the-clock teleconsultation services, home care services and a health store.

Another newcomer, WhiteCoat, recently partnered Grab to bolster its medication delivery services, just one year after the app's launch in August last year. This allowed it to cut delivery time from an average of three hours to 90 minutes or less.

Unlike some other providers, WhiteCoat has a team of dedicated, in-house doctors who also operate out of its physical clinic.

Meanwhile, older industry players have been aggressively expanding their businesses.

MyDoc started out in 2012 as a virtual clinic providing follow-up care to patients who had visited a physical clinic. Its user base has grown by leaps and bounds since then, with more than 30 million employees and policyholders from six of Asia's largest health insurers and over 200 Fortune 500 companies using its services now, said a MyDoc spokesman.

The company has also rolled out many more features, including 24/7 video consultation with clinicians, chronic disease management and health advisories, as well as integrated laboratory results.

GROWING TAKE-UP

Most Singaporeans are time-strapped and they value convenience. Also, with the huge rise in popularity and usage of services offered on mobile apps in recent years, people are much more receptive to the idea of seeing a doctor through the phone.

A DOCTOR ANYWHERE SPOKESMAN

In addition, it runs corporate digital health screenings for employees of these Fortune 500 companies and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that qualify for the Health Promotion Board's SME Health Plus programme.

Doctor Anywhere, which was incorporated in 2016, had 1,000 users when its video consult service was launched a year later.

Over one million now use its app to teleconsult general practitioners (GPs), neonatal consultants and doctors for aesthetic advice, as well as visit its hybrid clinics.

Last year, the company debuted three new services: a chain of hybrid medical clinics with both physical and video consultation services, an online marketplace for health products, and home-based health screening and vaccination, carried out by a mobile medical team.

"Most Singaporeans are time-strapped and they value convenience," said a Doctor Anywhere spokesman.

"Also, with the huge rise in popularity and usage of services offered on mobile apps in recent years, people are much more receptive to the idea of seeing a doctor through the phone," she added.

Telehealth services are popular among working professionals in their 20s to 40s, with just as many men as women using them.

One such user is data analyst manager Valerie Lim, 26, who began using Doctor Anywhere after a friend recommended the app to her earlier this year.

She said she was feeling very sick with food poisoning at the time and did not want to leave the house to queue at a clinic.

It took her only about 15 seconds to get a doctor, who diagnosed her in around five minutes.

Medicine was delivered to her home two to four hours later. She paid about $45 for the consult and another $10 to $15 for the medication, which she said helped her.

Ms Lim said: "It was better than taking a cab out and waiting and falling even more sick."

She added that she liked being able to see the names and profiles of doctors before choosing one, something she could not do during a physical consultation.

Despite her positive experiences with telemedicine - she has used it three times - she said she might continue consulting doctors in person in future.

"I'd still choose to see a regular doctor if I am really sick and not sure what's going on, and want more comfort and attention," she said, adding that the "human touch" matters to her.

Telemedicine providers acknowledge these concerns.

 
 

Calling telemedicine a "new frontier" in medical practice, Dr Tan Ming Wei, 35, who works for WhiteCoat, said he and his fellow doctors are trained to recognise conditions that may not be appropriately treated via telemedicine, and refer patients to the most appropriate form of medical care.

Yet the ease of getting medical care through a video call has also raised the question of how easy it is to fake being sick just to get an electronic medical certificate (MC).

Dr Ryan Thian, 44, one of the more than 30 GPs with Doctor World, dispelled the notion that patients have an easier time convincing doctors they are sick through a teleconsult, compared with a physical consult.

"MCs are given based on proper medical grounds and it's arrived at through clinical assessment and professional discretion," said the senior family physician from Raffles Medical White Sands.

"If you're talking about faking symptoms, it's always a similar challenge in a physical clinic."

The founder and chief executive of MaNaDr, Dr Siaw Tung Yeng, 54, said: "Every clinician is trained to have a high index of suspicion... this is your job, your bread and butter.

"Telemedicine isn't new. In the old days, we would speak to our patients over the phone and know from their voice whether they were sick or not."

Dr Siaw said he did not feel people were taking more MCs because of telemedicine, adding that someone doing so would eventually face the consequences from his employer.

Mr Nelson Lee, a chief human resource officer, said there is a very low incidence of MC fraud here.

He noted that some companies already allow employees to take sick leave without producing an MC.

With the growing demand for telemedicine, companies are continually rolling out new services.

Doctor World is launching a clinic queue system next month that lets patients who want to visit GP clinics forecast their waiting time and take queue numbers using the app, said its spokesman.

The company is also looking at gamification, a wellness rewards programme, and integrating the app with wearable technology to build a system that tracks and stores health readings.