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Prepare for the Digital Health Revolution

How health care is transcending physical walls.

At the turn of the 20th century, getting a checkup in America frequently meant your doctor came to you. Armed with a modest black bag of tools and old-fashioned medical know-how, physicians of yore would often take care of you right at your bedside.

As quaint as that image may seem today, it’s in some ways a vision of the future. New technologies are bringing back the house call—or a digital version of it, anyway.

The Companies

A slew of telehealth companies, from the Boston-based ­American Well to San Francisco startup ­Doctor On Demand, are again bringing health care to your doorstep—or more commonly, to your workplace. The National Business Group on Health last year surveyed 133 large companies employing 15 million Americans about their benefit practices: An astounding 90% said they expect to make at least some telemedicine services available to their workers this year. By 2019, nearly all of them will.

Chart shows wait time for doctors appointment in selected cities

So what does that brave new world look like? Say you’ve been working after hours and suddenly feel feverish and woozy. You would walk down the hall to your company’s on-site digital health station—that’s a fancy word for “kiosk” (which, in turn, is a fancy word for “booth”)—where you would consult with a physician immediately by phone or video. That same doctor can take your vital signs—temperature, pulse, blood pressure—and if needed, send a prescription to the nearest pharmacy. Or maybe just tell you to go home and get some rest.

In December, American Well partnered with Concentra, which has more than 300 medical centers in 40 states, to provide some of those on-call physicians.

One obvious advantage of telemedicine is that the doctor can be anywhere—which is not the case for our traditional health care system. At hospitals across the country, in fact, there is an entrenched doctor shortage, which has grown only more acute as millions of Americans have gained health coverage in recent years.

New digital platforms are helping to solve that problem too. One New York startup, Nomad Health, pairs doctors with hospitals in need of physicians in three specialties—internal medicine, emergency medicine, and psychiatry. Nomad cofounder and CEO Dr. Alexi Nazem, in an interview with Fortune, likens the system to an Airbnb model for medical staffing. The professional matchmaking process lets health systems find doctors with specific credentials (say, an internal medicine specialist with five years’ experience who is free to work at a New York–area hospital in July) and vice-versa. The platform then automatically takes care of tasks like providing malpractice insurance if the hospital and doctor strike a contract.

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This isn’t just convenient from a medical resource perspective; it also plays into a nascent “gig economy” in health care that’s become increasingly popular among younger, tech-savvy physicians. “With very little effort we’ve been able to tap into a huge flow of doctors who want to do short-term, freelance, flexible work,” says Nazem. “And I think that trend will continue [among millennials] not only because of the attitudinal shift [on freelance medical work] but also because the existence of technology actually makes it possible to do this kind of work.” Last summer the company raised $4 million in an early funding round led by First Round Capital and RRE Ventures.

And it’s not just medical startups driving this mobile health surge. Ride-sharing giants Uber and Lyft have started new programs to provide non-emergency medical transport for patients who struggle to get to a hospital. One platform that launched last fall, called Circulation, integrates medical records into Uber’s API so that nurses, caregivers, and hospital transportation coordinators can more easily schedule rides for patients and accommodate their needs (such as if they have a wheelchair or trouble seeing).

The Future

These technologies may one day fundamentally shift the way that health care is delivered and consumed. But before that transformation takes hold, some other changes will have to happen—including new reimbursement rules from insurance companies and policy shifts that make it easier for physicians to practice across state lines without gaining extra licenses or accreditation. There’s also the matter of whether mobile medical care will ultimately reduce national health spending: At least one recent report suggests that the technology may well cause people to pursue care they don’t need precisely because it makes it so convenient to get.

Still, don’t bet against the trend. For consumers, after all, convenience has always been king—and convenient and cheap? Well, there’s no beating that.

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