Dr. Phil-Backed Startup Launches Online Medical Exams

Dr. Phil Photograph by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

In his various professional incarnations, Phillip “Dr. Phil” McGraw has been a practicing psychologist, bestselling author, television personality, and spokesman for weight-loss products of dubious efficacy. Now he’s got a part-time gig as an adviser to a startup called Doctor On Demand, which is announcing itself to the public today. The service will try to increase online access to doctors, which could have far-reaching effects on health care.

McGraw helped conceive the San Francisco-based startup with his son Jay McGraw, a reality TV producer. The company has raised $3 million from investors including Google Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, Venrock, and Shasta Ventures. (Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg Businessweek, is an investor in Andreessen.)

The startup seeks to help people bypass costly in-person visits to crowded medical offices and emergency rooms by letting them use mobile devices to set up video chats with doctors. “There are 1.2 billion ambulatory care visits every year, and the vast majority of people are walking in for something like colds or urinary tract infections that are very amenable to an initial consult over video,” says Adam Jackson, the company’s co-founder and chief executive officer.

Each online consultation costs $40. Doctors who enlist in the company’s network will collect $30 per session. They can diagnose illnesses, prescribe medicine, or refer a case to a caregiver if it seems like an emergency or requires lab work or an in-person examination.

“It’s the bane of my existence, but everyone has a smartphone, which means everyone has a video camera. Everyone is paparazzi,” says McGraw, a shareholder and adviser to Doctor on Demand. “There are also many good things to come from this change in technology and telemedicine is one of them. It’s a giant step forward and a great opportunity to help people live healthier lives.”

The service goes live today in 15 states, including California, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Texas. (Many states have laws preventing Doctor on Demand from setting up shop.) The company says it has enlisted more than 1,000 doctors to offer video consults a day or two per week. The company trains physicians to use its service, and it handles all the extras, including patient questionnaires, pharmacy networks, and malpractice insurance.

The core concept brings to mind plenty of concerns. If an online video chat is grainy or cuts out, can there be a reliable quality of care? Doctor on Demand says it’s using a HIPAA-compliant cloud set up by Amazon Web Services for its technical infrastructure and has developed its own software to ensure high-quality chat sessions. But McGraw acknowledges shortcomings in the model. “Clearly you are not going to treat cancer with telemedicine,” he says. It’s up to individual doctors, he says, to refer patients to in-person caregivers if they seem to require a closer look.

Without commenting specifically on Doctor on Demand, American Medical Association President Ardis Dee Hoven said in a statement, “The AMA believes video conferencing services with a physician can be a helpful source of medical information for the public and can be a useful complement to more comprehensive services, if used properly.”

To help ensure that its physicians are practicing safe telemedicine, Doctor on Demand hired Pat Basu, a radiologist and former chief medical officer of telemedicine firm Virtual Radiologic. Since he joined the company in June, Basu has worked to make sure patients give doctors the necessary clinically relevant information before the consultation. Basu, who advised the White House on a one-year policy fellowship, says Doctor on Demand can help relieve the burden on the country’s overtaxed health-care infrastructure. Treating milder cases online, he says, “frees up access to those who need it.”

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