Online medical advice comes at low cost but with high risk
Despite being cheaper, there is little accountability when it comes to consulting an online doctor. It is best to avoid it for first-time diagnosis.
To check the authenticity of the advice proffered on online medical marketplaces, ET Wealth posed a query on three such platforms and then checked the diagnoses and advice offered by meeting doctors in person. The advice offered by both online and offline doctors was similar. However, the medical practitioners contacted in person stressed on the importance of visiting a doctor for a proper diagnosis.
According to Anil Heroor, Surgical Oncologist, Fortis Hospital, Mumbai, it is not advisable to prescribe medicine to a patient without an in-person physical examination. For instance, a patient suffering from cancer can be told that he needs to undergo chemotherapy, but the dosage cannot be prescribed without meeting the patient in person, says Heroor.
Given the old order’s insistence on patients meeting doctors for diagnoses and advice, how utilitarian are the burgeoning medical sites? They are cheaper for one. Online advice from a general physician can cost as low as Rs 100, with most platforms charging around Rs 200. Besides, you manage to save on transportation costs to and from a clinic or hospital, especially in large metros.
Cheap, however, may not necessarily mean effective. Experts say, online doctors, at best, are a solution when you need treatment for some benign ailment— cough, cold, mild fever—which is seasonal or viral. Even then, consulting a family physician, who is aware of your medical history, is a better option. “While you cannot write off online consulting completely, it is best suited when one is looking for a second opinion or wants to know only the line of treatment for a particular disease,” says Heroor. Moreover, a wrong diagnosis simply because you were not physically examined by a doctor who misread the symptoms stated by you can mean a much higher cost later for treatment elsewhere.
Even regular doctors admit to consulting patients through video chats and over the phone, but this, they say, are informal suggestions. Also, this kind of help is restricted to patients who are referred by doctors, not those approaching a doctor directly. The referral provides the doctor with an idea about the patient’s medical history. Even in such cases, only those needing generic advice, not special cases, are entertained. The advice is still treated as informal. Abha Nagral, Gastroenterologist at Jaslok Hospital, Mumbai, says she doesn’t mind consulting patients over the phone if it is for follow-up advise or to discuss reports involving, say, the blood sugar level. “Meeting patients is important. You can diagnose better by observing, and talking to them,” she says.
At your own risk
Those seeking advice on online platforms need to be aware that in case it doesn’t work or has a negative impact, their grievance may not have any legal standing. The terms and conditions of most of these platforms are couched in legalise that completely absolves them of any responsibility. You’ll be diagnosed, you’ll get advice, you may choose to take it or leave it, but the one doling out advice is not responsible if you act on it and it backfires. Think twice before you accept advice for which the adviser cannot be held accountable. K.K. Aggarwal, Secretary General of the Indian Medical Association, says patients who go online for consulting doctors are aware of the associated risks.
While each of these portals claims to follow a strict process when it comes to selecting doctors, the system appears compromised. For instance, some platforms allow experienced doctors to register for free, but for fresh graduates or less experienced doctors, they levy a fee. So, if an inexperienced doctor is willing to pay a fee, he too can offer advice on these platforms. Experience does not always really matter in this service model. While these portals are certainly an easy way for doctors to build their practice, especially fresh graduates, who can reach out to and interact with patients from across the country, their value to patients is not as certain.