Telemedicine allows you to see a doctor from the comfort of your home—or hotel room, or vacation house, or pretty much anywhere else.
A telemedicine company facilitates these remote visits, and helps figure out the easiest time for a virtual appointment based on your schedule.
Telemedicine and telehealth have extended the reach of top-notch medical expertise to rural areas, people who are homebound, and people who often travel.
Telemedicine has improved by leaps and bounds recently, bolstered by increased access to high-speed internet and increasing numbers of doctors and clinics who participate.
There’s never been a better time to see a doctor remotely, and fortunately, we’ve ranked the ten best telemedicine companies of 2018.
PlushCare is a telemedicine service that makes it quick and easy to see a doctor, get a diagnosis, and fill a prescription.
It’s excellent for everything from allergy tests to infections to STD testing to pre-exposure prophylaxis prescriptions for people at risk for contracting HIV.
Plushcare works with with many major insurance providers and is a great choice for rapid and convenient medical care over the phone.
ZocDoc is great if you need to see a doctor in person, but hate dealing with the hassle of appointment scheduling, insurance coverage, and all of the other administrative hassles that go along with making a doctor’s appointment.
While it was initially open to only residents of New York City, it has expanded nationwide and is now used by over six million people.
Tech visionaries like Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel invested heavily in ZocDoc, which is a great testament to the value it provides.
Forward is the Silicon Valley vision of the future of healthcare: combining DNA sequencing, artificial intelligence, and full-body scanning alongside wearable devices for mobile health monitoring and instant access to medical care via a smartphone app.
It’s a subscription-based services that’s currently only for residents near its San Francisco headquarters, but with millions of dollars in funding already secured, it’s on the look for more locations in more cities.
Teladoc is one of the oldest and biggest telemedicine companies on the market.
It’s a hub for getting treatment for a wide range of medical services, from anxiety and depression to skin conditions and acute infections.
With a smartphone, you can be video chatting with a medical doctor in minutes—24 hours a day, anywhere with internet access or cell service. Its versatility and broad range of conditions that can be treated make it a strong choice.
5. Doctor on Demand
Doctor on Demand is a telemedicine service co-founded by Dr. Phil that’s seen millions of dollars in investment in the last few years, indicating that healthcare industry-watchers see major potential for this company.
The company is one of the most versatile in the industry, with services set up to treat everything from sexual health issues to urgent care, mental health, and chronic conditions like type two diabetes.
With a user base in the millions, it’s one of the fastest-growing and most popular telemedicine companies right now.
Geared for world travellers, iCliniq offers the services of 2,500 doctors for medical consultations and diagnoses from your smartphone.
It’s quite popular among expatriates and those travelling far from home, who don’t want to be forced to rely on the local medical infrastructure wherever they find themselves in the world.
iCliniq is not quite as slick as some of its other competitors, but when you’re travelling out of the country, it’s hard to beat.
MDLive is a telemedicine company that excels at treating mild and acute conditions, skin problems, and mental health issues.
It’s particularly popular for its counseling and support services, though you can also get diagnosed and treated for sore throats, ear infections, and eczema.
While it’s a strong pick for remote mental health services, it isn’t the top company on the market when it comes to other medical conditions.
MeMD is a services that’s primarily geared towards diagnosing and treating mild and acute conditions like aches, fevers, headaches, and diarrhea.
It’s easy to get treated for these semi-urgent conditions, though if you are primarily looking for coverage for chronic conditions, there are better options out there.
Amwell is the direct to patient app and service from American Well, one of the biggest companies in virtual medicine and telehealth.
The Amwell app allows you to video conference with licenced physicians, though the company itself makes it clear that Amwell is primarily intended to be a stop-gap medical service providing diagnoses in between regular doctor’s visits, and not a full replacement for your regular medical provider.
MyTelemedicine is a phone and internet-based telemedicine provider. It’s quite popular and leverages both phone and video conferencing to connect patients with doctors.
The downsides with this company are the actual patient/doctor connection process.
You have to deal with a lot of the same administrative hurdles over the phone as you do with a real doctor’s visit, and it doesn’t provide some of the nice perks that competitors offer, like automated appointment scheduling that adapts to your schedule.
An inside look at telemedicine
Telemedicine and telehealth provide medical evaluations, diagnoses, and treatments remotely.
Initial telemedicine services focused on consultations over the phone, but thanks to smartphones and high speed internet connections, the focus has shifted to video calls and remote examinations of things like rashes and other skin conditions thanks to the photo and video capabilities in modern smartphones.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that telemedicine is only for diagnoses and acute conditions, though—telemedicine companies have expanded to mental health, sexual health, and monitoring chronic conditions like hypertension and type two diabetes.
With a telemedicine service, you can get treated for a range of acute conditions. While no telemedicine service is equipped to deal with true medical emergencies, acute conditions still form the backbone of most telemedicine appointments.
These include headaches, muscle pain, vomiting, sore throats, diarrhea, ear infections, and other classic reasons that you’d find yourself going to an urgent care center or an emergency room to get checked out.
Often, a virtual exam conducted via webcam or smartphone can pinpoint the problem, without having to leave your home. For many conditions, like a skin infection or fungus, you can even get a prescription written that you can fill at a pharmacy at your convenience.
Sometimes, you’ll have to go in to a doctor’s office for more advanced testing, but telemedicine can still help eliminate some alternative diagnoses, saving you time and money.
Some leading telemedicine companies help you monitor chronic conditions. Though acute conditions like infections are the most obvious reason to subscribe to a telemedicine company, there’s an increasing push to use mobile technology to help patients monitor chronic conditions like high blood pressure.
Speaking with Forbes Magazine in 2017, Forward CEO Adrian Aoun describes the apparent paradox: while most people associate visits to the doctor with infections, sprained wrists, and other acute conditions, the real threats to public health come from chronic conditions (1).
For this reason, companies like Forward and other top-rated telemedicine providers are striving to help people control chronic conditions like COPD, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and the other big chronic conditions that harm long-term health and wellness.
With the advent of wearable technology like smartphones and smart watches for tracking physical activity levels, resting heart rate, and other measures of health, telemedicine may well become the gold standard of medical care for chronic medical conditions.
Telemedicine is on the cutting edge of care for mental health conditions. Mental and emotional health problems, like major depression and anxiety disorders, don’t follow a normal 9-5 working schedule.
However, many traditional psychologist’s offices do follow such restrictive schedules, which can make it hard for people with mental health conditions to get the care they need when they most need it.
Telemedicine companies like MDLive and other industry leaders are changing the way mental health care works by connecting patients with therapists 24 hours a day via phone calls and video chatting.
As reported in a 2018 article in Healthcare Finance, most Americans who have mental health conditions don’t get treatment for them (2).
The lack of access to high-quality mental health care is driven in large part by a lack of access—people in rural areas, for example, may not have easy access to the kinds of specialists they may need.
When faced with a two-hour drive, many people who need care often elect to just forgo it instead.
For these people and others who live in places that are underserved by mental health care professionals, telemedicine is a game-changer.
Telemedicine is most popular in radiology, cardiology, and psychiatry. The advantages of telemedicine for some specialties are obvious: in radiology, for example, there is no need for the physician to be physically present to interpret X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans.
As such, it’s easy to seek an expert opinion from someone on the opposite side of the country or even the opposite side of the world.
Likewise, in psychiatry, where one of the primary treatment modalities is talk therapy, it’s easy to deliver care from a distance via phone or video chat. But as reported in Healthcare Informatics, cardiology is showcasing some of the biggest strengths of telemedicine (3).
Because heart conditions and heart disease are chronic conditions that need to be managed on a day-to-day level, telemedicine can leverage remote monitoring of heart rate, high blood pressure, and adherence to medication prescriptions.
It’s completely impractical to come in to the doctor’s office every week or every few days just to check up on how well your body is tolerating a new medication, but before telemedicine, that was the reality.
Now, you can schedule a quick phone call or video chat with your doctor and check up on your treatment plan from home or abroad.
Telemedicine is quite popular among travelers. If you have ever experienced a medical problem while traveling, you are probably familiar with how much trouble it can be to get medical treatment when you’re away from home.
Wrangling with insurance providers is a nightmare, not to mention the difficulty of finding a good doctor in a new location. This is doubly true if you are traveling to a different country.
However, telemedicine is changing this picture. A recent study published in the Journal of Travel Medicine polled a group of over 300 frequent travelers about their interests in telemedicine services, and found that almost 60% expressed significant interest in telemedicine and telehealth while traveling abroad (4).
Moreover, the researchers found that travelers age 60 and older and travelers with chronic immune system conditions like lupus or HIV were more likely to express interest in telemedicine for travel, which pairs up well with many of the advantages of telemedicine for travelers.
For those with chronic conditions, like older adults and adults with immune system dysfunctions, telemedicine allows them to stay in touch with the same doctor that they see when they are at home.
This ensures that the same provider can provide care when a problem arises, no matter where in the world you are. All you need is a telemedicine provider and a wifi or data connection.
Q: Are telemedicine and telehealth services covered by insurance?
A: While coverage plans vary from provider to provider, insurance coverage for telemedicine is fairly rare, for the time being at least.
However, a few insurers are including or even encouraging telemedicine for its ability to control costs and provide more active monitoring of chronic health conditions that drive up overall healthcare costs.
According to the trade magazine Managed Healthcare Executive, coverage for “eVisits” are quite rare, but the cost to the patient for these appointments is quite low: often $40 or cheaper.
A few insurers are covering these kinds of services, but determining the reimbursement rate for the doctor is an administrative challenge that’s slowing the adoption of broader insurance coverage among telemedicine providers.
Still, a number of the top-ranked telemedicine companies do accept insurance, especially those that cover chronic conditions and handle prescriptions. Others, like Forward, are a strictly subscription-based service that stand apart from the normal insurance and healthcare system.
Q: What kinds of medical conditions cannot be treated by telemedicine?
A: There are a few obvious things, like medical emergencies, broken bones, and the like, that are obviously not suited for telemedicine.
In addition to the conditions you’d think of, there are also some medical conditions that are not currently treatable via telehealth services due to regulations.
Chronic pain is a good example: while chronic pain is a condition that’s well-suited to being treated remotely, opiates are so heavily regulated that they almost always need to be prescribed in-person. As a result, you can’t get a prescription for many of the medications that are used to treat chronic pain.
The same is true for some of the medications used to treat anxiety: benzodiazepines are often useful treatments for many symptoms of anxiety disorders, but because they are heavily regulated medications, most telemedicine providers can’t write a prescription for them.
Aside from these regulatory hurdles, some (but not all) telemedicine services won’t provide services for acute injuries like sprains and strains. As the industry evolves, though, more and more telehealth providers are expanding the range of conditions they cover.
Q: Can telemedicine prescribe medications?
A: Usually, the answer is yes. While you’ll have to get your prescription filled at your own pharmacy, telemedicine service providers can write and fill prescriptions for most of the medications you’d need.
There are a few exceptions, mentioned earlier, like opiates and benzodiazepines, but aside from these controlled substances, telemedicine doctors can prescribe a range of medications.
This range includes pills, as well as creams and other topical treatments for skin conditions, sexually transmitted diseases, and nail disease.
Q: Is telemedicine covered by Medicare and Medicaid?
A: With regards to Medicare, it’s possible to get some services covered, though there are strict requirements.
According to eVisit, there are several criteria that must be met, by the patient, the provider, and the specific service being requested in order for telemedicine services to be covered and reimbursed (5).
This confluence of requirements makes it difficult in practice to get Medicare to cover telemedicine services, though you can ask your specific telemedicine provider and doctor about whether they have arrangements to bill services through Medicare.
For Medicaid, the situation is even more complex, since Medicaid is administered at the state level. As a result, it’s even more difficult (but again, not impossible) to get specific telemedicine services covered by Medicaid.
Q: Is telemedicine just for doctor’s visits?
A: Telemedicine can provide much more than just doctor’s visits. Telemedicine and telehealth services have quickly expanded to include nutritionists, consulting, and therapists for getting help with everything from obesity to anxiety problems to eating disorders and body image problems.
This broad range of medical professionals and services available makes telemedicine well-suited for a broader and more holistic strategy for health, instead of merely focusing on doctor’s appointments, diagnoses, and medication prescriptions.
Q: What are the primary downsides of telemedicine?
A: The biggest drawbacks to telemedicine are its reliance on a fast and stable internet or data connection, the relatively small number of providers participating, and administrative challenges when it comes to dealing with insurance (for some companies at least).
When having a virtual doctor’s appointment via video conferencing, you’ll need a stable internet connection or a fast data connection on your phone to be able to transmit and receive high quality video and audio during the appointment. In places with limited internet access, this can prove to be a problem.
Many telemedicine providers offer over-the-phone consultations too, so even if fast internet is spotty when you are traveling, most of the time you’re likely to have a good enough connection for a phone call.
A second limitation is merely the scale of telemedicine: according to trade magazine Healthcare Informatics, only 15 percent of physicians worked for practices that employed telemedicine in any capacity (6). Of these, not all participate in direct to consumer telemedicine.
While this is a drawback of telemedicine for the time being, telehealth practices are still growing rapidly.
As reported by Medscape, the rapid pace of growth is attributable in large part to the adoption of new laws among many states between 2015 and 2017 that encouraged or even required insurers to provide equal coverage to services rendered via telemedicine (7).
As such, this particular limitation is not likely to remain a problem for very long.
The last issue with telemedicine—administrative hurdles when dealing with insurance—is also likely to fall to the same rising trend of incentives or requirements for insurers to support telemedicine, as it cuts cost for both providers and for patients.
Telemedicine is a rapidly growing option for healthcare that offers the convenience of seeing a doctor anywhere in the world, from the comfort of your home to a hotel room in a far-away country.
Telemedicine services can provide care for a surprisingly large range of health problems, from assessing acute injuries like a sprained wrist to long-term monitoring of chronic conditions like type two diabetes.
Moreover, you can get counseling and therapy for mental and emotional health problems, as well as other services from nutritionists and other care providers. Telemedicine isn’t well-suited for treating some medical problems.
The obvious ones are medical emergencies, but chronic pain and some types of anxiety disorders pose problems too, because of the restrictions on what medications can be prescribed via telemedicine.
Aside from these exceptions, though, telemedicine is a good way to manage your prescriptions and keep track of chronic health conditions, especially when you are traveling.
There are a wide range of top-rated telemedicine companies providing great services, ranging from providers that work with insurance companies to subscription-only services that provide personalized medical care via your smartphone.