thumbnailHow many times have you been sick and tried to get an appointment with your doctor, only to find out that he or she had no openings for the next three days? Or maybe you got sick over a weekend or in the middle of the night, when your doctor’s office was closed, and had to make your way to an emergency room or urgent care clinic, where you then had to wait for hours before a physician could see you. Or perhaps you were traveling, either for work or pleasure, and got sick while in a different city, making seeing your doctor impossible.

Often, the most frustrating part of being sick is not the illness itself; it’s finding a way to get treatment when you need it most. Twenty years ago, using my Hard Trends model of forecasting, I predicted that by 2010 the exponential and predictable progress of processing power, digital storage, and bandwidth—what I called the three digital accelerators—would reach the levels we would need to start seeing virtual ER and doctor visits, which would lower costs, improve efficiency, and ultimately change healthcare. In my latest New York Times best seller Flash Foresight, I wrote that the digital accelerators have indeed reached that predicted level, and so is the virtual ER.

A few years ago, you may have read one of my articles describing the first virtual ER, Stat Doctors, based in Phoenix Arizona. They have a large, national network of board certified, U.S. licensed emergency room doctors who can see you, 24/7, with only a ten-minute wait. Each virtual visit, using a secure video conferencing interface between the patient and doctor, requires a modest fee using a credit card. Their main focus has been to sign up large companies and health organizations who then provide access to their employees or members.

We now have another company, HealthTap, that provides virtual house calls, but their model differs in a few interesting ways. Like Stat Doctors, they have a large number, in their case over 63,000, board certified and U.S. licensed doctors in their network. What’s different is that they have a monthly subscription service, not a pay-per-visit model, so it actually encourages people to seek out medical advice rather than take a “wait and see” approach to their aches and pains. And as any doctor will tell you, early intervention is key to making sure small medical problems don’t turn into big ones.

You might be wondering if a video chat with a doctor really provides adequate healthcare? Of course, services like Stat Doctors and HealthTap can’t treat broken legs or emergencies that need hands-on medical procedures. But every day there are a large number of people in U.S. hospital ER waiting rooms who don’t need that sort of high-level medical attention. In fact, most people visit the doctor for small things, like infections, rashes, and other minor ailments. And since 70% of patients, on average, do not have same-day access to their doctor, they either end up in the emergency room or in an urgent care clinic, or they wait it out and hope they feel better soon.

With both Stat Doctors and HealthTap, patients simply click a button on their tablet, smart phone, or computer, and within minutes they’re connected via video to a doctor, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They can even send pictures of a problem or copies of lab results to find out if something is serious or not. The doctors can then offer advice, write a prescription if needed, provide action plans or referrals to specialists, or just give patients peace of mind.

These two pioneering companies have created a platform that not only connects patients to the doctors who can best assist them, but it also collects data from each patient’s electronic medical records to ensure the doctor knows the person’s full medical history before the interaction. This ensures that patients get the most accurate medical advice for their unique situation.

While this sort of an approach to healthcare is new and not something insurance companies reimburse for, many insurers are taking notice because they see the potential this offers to cut costs. In fact, market research firm IHS predicts the telemedecine industry (which Stat Doctors and HealthTap are a part of) will grow from its current $240 million to $1.9 billion by 2018.

So the next time you need to see a doctor for something minor, a drive to your doctor’s office may not be necessary. The advice, prescriptions, and relief you need may be just a click away.

Share your thoughts: Have you ever used a service like Stat Doctors or HealthTap? What was your experience with it? The next time you’re sick, would you consider using such a service? Why or why not?