BILLINGS – When Pam Kaufman's son called home from college just before Thanksgiving and said he needed to see his doctor to check out a cough, she initially wasn't sure if she'd be able to get him an appointment on such short notice.
Kaufman, a lead mammography technologist at St. Vincent Healthcare, tried to get him in but had no luck. She'd recently heard about a new video-appointment app the hospital was offering to address non-urgent medical problems and thought they'd give it a try.
When all was said and done, they'd met with a certified physician who helped figure out everything at a fraction of the possible cost of a face-to-face visit – without having to leave home.
"We spent about 10 minutes talking and he said he thought my son had bronchitis and got us a prescription for medication right there," Kaufman said. "He was very thorough. It was so convenient."
Called Doctor on Demand, the service lets patients, from the convenience of home, connect with doctors using an app of the same name on a computer, tablet or smartphone.
It's a national service with doctors licensed to now serve patients in 14 states after it partnered with St. Vincent Healthcare parent organization SCL Health to bring it to its facilities in Montana and Colorado.
"It's a great tool that we can provide the community," said Eric Pollard, St. Vincent director of radiology and virtual health. "It allows patients quick and easy access to a doctor wherever they may be, and it's a simple application."
For patients to use the service, they must first download the Doctor On Demand app and fill out their basic information.
The app pinpoints a patient's location and connects him or her via video with a doctor certified to practice in the state in which they're located at the time.
It's designed to help people with non-emergency medical issues, such as allergies, rashes, bumps, bruises, coughs and other ailments.
After a short wait – typically just a few minutes – the patient chats with a doctor, going over basic info that is usually covered in a traditional face-to-face visit before going into the specific problems the patient wants addressed. The doctors can also write prescriptions for some medications if necessary.
Dr. Tania Elliott, Doctor On Demand's New York-based assistant medical director, said appointments are usually allotted about 15 minutes and that hers – she said she might see as many as four to six an hour – typically last seven to nine minutes.
"The average amount of time it takes to get in and see a doctor is four hours," she said. "All of this is done within 15 minutes."
Each visit costs a flat fee of $40 – about the cost of a typical co-pay.
The program is available 24 hours a day and can ease the burden on people looking for basic medical care, Elliott said. They can and will also recommend somebody visit a doctor in person if the need arises.
"We’re not going to replace the primary-care doctor but there are always so many problems with access," she said. "You now have immediate access to a board-certified doctor who can help you. It’s kind of a no-brainer."
The program, which began in 2013, has about 1,400 doctors involved nationwide, including about 70 who work full time for Doctor On Demand.
Pollard said no St. Vincent doctors are included in those numbers, but that the hospital hopes to get some of its physicians involved soon.
Part of the appeal to SCL Health was that the program is already established and has worked out many of the details and kinks that would come from starting a similar effort from scratch.
"They've already figured a lot of that out, and it really lines up with our mission of access to care," Pollard said.
He said that in the first few months since SCL Health rolled out its involvement in late 2015, several hundred people used the service, and he expects that number to grow. People who use it don't have to be patients at an SCL Health facility such as St. Vincent.
The program's convenience is one of its major appeals. Pollard said that it's comforting to know that, should one of his own kids develop a cough or feel ill in the middle of the night, he can bring up Doctor On Demand and get some help without having to leave the house.
Kaufman noted that the time it saved and the low cost, combined with the privacy of staying home, were the biggest appeals when she used it with her son.
"I'd encourage people to use it, to try it out," she said. "It is very nice and very convenient."
It's also part of an effort at St. Vincent to incorporate video services into its care. Pollard said there are no fewer than 30 different projects using video in the works, including a telemergency program that can connect the hospital's emergency department with 13 different emergency rooms or health facilities across Montana.
"Technology is changing medicine, and there's a lot happening," he said. "We're excited to bring this to the market. It's just one more tool in the many tools that we provide. With everybody so busy today, it's hard to make time to take care of yourself. Well, with this, there's really no excuse."