Doctors on Demand and the Mobile Erasing of Borders


One of the greater organizations in the world is Doctors Without Borders, a group dedicated to going to regions of the earth that lack a functioning medical infrastructure to help those who need it most. They go to war zones dotted with miserable refugee camps and wracked with violence, disease areas where others flee, and poorer countries that can’t afford real help. They’re dedicated to the idea that everyone deserves care and that borders are an artifice.

Both points are pretty radical and disruptive (the former sadly so), but on the second point, regarding borders, the rest of us may finally be catching up to this organization. While countries still matter (a lot), our communication and mobile technology has allowed us to erase lines and talk through walls, real or imagined. This is especially true in the field of medicine, where the idea that the only treatment you can get comes from a local doctor is being erased more and more every day. Our mobile tech is changing the way we think about the roles of both doctor and patient, and mostly for the good. One recent example of this is San Francisco’s Doctors on Demand.

Doctors on Demand Hits It Big

Fundraising isn’t exactly a way to measure nobility, but it does measure success. Doctors on Demand, the San Francisco-based group that connects patients with providers, recently announced a funding round of an astounding $50 million. This will allow them to further expand their market dominance.

Doctors on Demand is a video telemedicine provider. Basically, you can be connected with a doctor via a videoscreen on your laptop, PC, phone, or tablet (and perhaps someday soon, your watch), and they can get your vitals and information and diagnose you. You can meet with someone on demand and tell them your symptoms, and they will be able to (in theory) tell you what is wrong and what you need to do.

What makes this worthwhile is the convenience and the expertise. One problem with our healthcare system is that because of the expense and the inconvenience, most people won’t go to a doctor until they absolutely have to. I know I’ve had many aches and pains and sicknesses that I’ve ignored because they were manageable and I didn’t feel like wasting a day at the doctor or putting down money for a copay. My mentality is far from uncommon. It’s how most people think. Who has the time or the money to see someone?

That’s one of the reasons why WebMD became so popular. You were able to ascertain what was wrong with you without having to see anyone. Of course, while WebMD can be helpful if it’s used properly, the flawed nature of the model led to an outbreak of A Little Knowledge Syndrome, wherein people took a handful of potentially disparate symptoms, lumped them together, then found the worst possible sickness that could loosely match it. You know, “Well, my eyes are kind of red, so I’m pretty sure I have myxomatosis.”

Doctors on Demand and similar competing platforms change that by allowing for an actual professional diagnosis, rather than fear-driven assumptions. Of course, it is still a video-based technology, meaning it still has some serious limitations, but it shows promise that it can get a lot better as it develops.

Doctors, Diagnosis, and the Internet of Things

Where this story is going to get really interesting is in the next 10-20 years, when the on-demand economy meets the rise of biometrics. We’re already swimming in wearable tech that measures our heart rate, breathing rate, and other metrics. We’re also beginning to develop more intimate nanobots that can actually be inside our bodies, taking data and understanding our health.

The combination of these technologies will allow video and distant diagnosis to reach escape velocity. There will be little need to be in a room with a doctor to have a basic checkup or to find out what is wrong with you, and no more embarrassing procedures. Any doctor, anywhere, can have access to your basic information. There are those that speculate that if this gets sophisticated enough, it is possible to see a day where you are diagnosed just by the cumulation of your data. No need for humans at all.

This doesn’t obviate the need for doctors. We’ll always need surgeons and specialists, and, I believe, we won’t ever be able to rely solely on a collection of data to provide every diagnosis. The human body is a weird thing. We’re all similar, but all different, too. A symptom in one person can mean something totally different than a symptom in someone else. It relies on history, genetics, lifestyle, and a million other things. Maybe our mobile tech can get that sophisticated, but I think we’ll always need the human element.

That’s what this is all about. Doctors on Demand isn’t heroic like Doctors Without Borders, but they are similar in that they expand access to care to people who might not otherwise get it. This expansion, this erasure of traditional lines, is what the mobile revolution has always been about.

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