Thinking about visiting an online doctor? Michael Finney looks at the pros and cons

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We've all heard about the house calls doctors used to make in the "old days." Now, doctors are making digital house calls. (KGO-TV)

We've all heard about the house calls doctors used to make in the "old days." Now, doctors are making digital house calls.

It's called "telemedicine" and allows you to consult a doctor by video conferencing, email or over the phone. While this relatively new advancement makes getting advice quick and easy, it's also bringing up concerns.

Dr. Adam Schoenfeld is a resident in internal medicine at University of California, San Francisco, and received his first introduction to telemedicine as a medical student.

"I was ill one day," Adam says, "So, I went online to research where I can see a doctor, actually, and this popped up: 'Get your treatment online right now!'"

Adam signed up online and told a doctor he had a sore throat. He was prescribed an antibiotic. Turns out, he is allergic to that medication. Red flags went up.

"I realized, Oh! This is something that could be potentially dangerous," he says.

He took his concerns to Dr. R. Adams Dudley, director of the UCSF Center for Healthcare.

Adams remembers the initial conversation, "He was a beginning medical student, so he wasn't sure. He came to me and says, 'Does this make sense to you?'"

It did not, Adams says, and that simple interaction launched a study into websites offering medical advice. Professionals pretended to be patients and signed up with the medical advice services.

Betty Grandis participated in the study a standardized patient, who are rigorously trained "to portray the signs and symptoms of maybe an illness or condition."

Betty and other standardized patients went online hundreds of times mimicking illnesses to see how the online telemedicine world works.

I asked her to show me how she went about her job. I told her I would play the doctor, asking, "What can I help you with today?"

She answered, "Well, I have been ill for the last week, and I feel like I have a sore throat that won't let up."

I asked her to describe her symptoms. She responded, "Whenever I swallow, it is really, really sore, and it is getting hard to swallow right now."

So what did researchers find? A very mixed medical bag.

Adams says some of the advice was ill conceived, some was amazingly well done.

"I don't just want to paint this as a bad thing," Adams says. "If we can figure out a way to use telemedicine right, then it dramatically improves convenience, it dramatically improves access."

But there are some hurdles beyond medical issues. There are legal concerns.

"If a patient is in California," Adams explains, "and the doctor is in Florida, which laws apply?"

What if, for example, there is a malpractice suit or a concern over a doctor's competence? Adams says telemedicine is breaking new ground, and the answers to those questions are still being sorted out.

"It's the Wild West out there," Adams says, "and (patients) need to go into it with their eyes wide open."

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