Whether it’s a common cold or a persistent cough, millions of Americans are needlessly flooding urgent care centers and emergency rooms when they get sick. For a fraction of the cost and a lot less wait time, they can see a doctor from the comfort of their home or office thanks to services like MeMD.

“People end up at the ER and urgent care when sometimes all they need is some advice or direction,” says John Shufeldt, chief executive of MeMD www.memd.com. “They don’t have to waste their time and money going there when they can interact face to face with a health-care provider at the click of button.”

Advances in technology have ushered in a new era that allows doctors to diagnose non-serious illnesses from a computer screen. All patients need is a computer, Webcam and Internet access and they can engage in a virtual doctor’s visit without having to sit in a waiting room.

While this type of patient/doctor interaction is in its infancy, experts expect the process to catch on quickly due to the convenience and affordability. According to market research firm Technavio, the global telemedicine market is expected to increase at a compounded annual growth rate of 19% between 2010 and 2014.

Although services like MeMD aren’t suited for people with serious illnesses or chronic diseases, Shufeldt says it is ideal for patients suffering from easily-treatable sicknesses like sinuses infections, upper repertory problems, sore throats, urinary tract infections and rashes. “Sixty percent of the stuff people show up at urgent care with and 35% to 45% of what they show up at emergency rooms with can be seen virtually very easily,” says Shufeldt. He predicts seeing a physician online will eventually be as common as seeing one in the office.

To use MeMD, users log on to a secure website that is HIPAA compliant, which means a patient’s medical information and privacy are safe and secure. After answering a short questionnaire, a “wait to see a provider” message will pop up while MeMD’s call center sends a text message, email or calls to participating doctors to alert them to a waiting patient and to get estimated times for when a doctor can log on. Currently, the average wait time is 12 minutes, but it can be as short as 10 seconds or as long as a half hour depending on the time of day, availability of doctors or nurse practitioners and how many people are using the system.  Once a licensed doctor joins, the patient interacts with the health-care provider via webcam and microphone, similar to how people communicate via Skype.  Shufeldt  says MeMD has around 350 participating providers. 

 According to Shufeldt, the quality of the video conferencing is high enough that things like rashes and ear infections can be diagnosed online.  “We can really examine somebody on a webcam,” says Shufeldt. MeMD doctors and nurses are licensed in each state the service is available and doctors and nurse practitioners can prescribe medications, excluding controlled substances or lifestyle type medications, says Shufeldt. 

Individuals pay $44.95 per visit while employers pay $3.00 to $4.00 per employee per month for unlimited access. Although the service doesn’t accept insurance, insured patients can submit a claim to their provider to see if it will be covered. According to Shufeldt, companies are receptive to offering the service to their employees because it helps boost productivity, reduces absenteeism and cuts down on the health care costs associated with visits to the ER.  MeMD has 30 employers using the service with 4,000 workers across the country accessing doctors. 

Currently, online physician services can only diagnose certain illnesses, but Shufeldt expects the list to expand in the coming years. He predicts that eventually low-cost digital in-home medical devices like a stethoscope or an otoscope will be available in the marketplace, enabling doctors to listen to a patient’s heart or look inside the ear drum virtually. But before any virtual care is adapted by the masses people will have to buy into the idea that they can get the same care online that they would face to face with a doctor.  “People are getting more open to it,” says Shufeldt. “They don’t have to wait [to see a doctor] so the people that use it love it.”