'Surprising' Number of Physicians Using Video Chat, Study Shows

May 20, 2011

New research indicates that video chatting developing into a medium where physicians and patients can instantly interact. But like most technology, there are issues that come with innovation.

Last October, a survey of 3,001 adults conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project revealed that nearly one-fifth of American adults have tried video chatting either online or via their cell phones. 

So chances are, a few of you in the healthcare industry - physicians, support staff, administrative staff - have at least tried out a video chat at home, or are video chatting regularly. It’s not surprising, considering that video chatting is easy to do, (almost) free, and can be the next best thing to seeing a loved one face-to-face.

But to what extent are doctors using the still relatively new online video medium for the purpose of interacting with patients? Apparently, more often than some researchers originally thought.

Manhattan Research’s newly released study of 2,041 U.S. practicing physicians reveals seven percent are using online video conferencing to communicate with patients. The survey, which is focused on how physicians are using technology in the practice, also found that certain specialties, such as psychiatrists and oncologists, are more likely to be using video conferencing with patients.

First, the good news. Researchers noted that as video chatting becomes more common, this type of communication is emerging as a way for physicians to consult with patients about non-urgent issues, such as follow up questions from an office visit.

“The number [of physicians who use video chatting] is higher than we thought,” Monique Levy, vice president of research for Manhattan Research, told Physicians Practice. “It was a bit of a surprising result. If you think about the market generally for online patient-physician communications, which has been slow to grow, we didn’t expect physicians to be using video.”

Though it’s too early to predict how the market will grow, Levy said that physicians who use video tend to be more comfortable because video chats aren’t usually recorded. With e-mail, however, there is always a written record of a conversation that a patient keeps.

“You can keep an e-mail trail of all your communications,” said Levy. “If I’m using Skype, generally I’m not recording, I’m not keeping a record of that transaction. It’s more similar to a phone call in that sense.”

Now, a word of caution: HIPAA (we did say a word, didn’t we?). The study found that physician concerns regarding reimbursement, liability and HIPAA are still major barriers to communicating online with patients.

“HIPAA is a big barrier for most physicians,” said Levy. “Video might give them more comfort [than using e-mail], but the underlying security issues might be there.”