11/29/2012 10:36 am ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

Online Doctor Visits Could Streamline Care

By Katherine Harmon
(Click here for the original article and podcast)

Waiting in the doctor's office, reading old magazines is never fun. But some health systems are allowing patients with minor ailments to see the doctor--without seeing the doctor. These patients can log onto their personal health record portal, answer questions about their condition and get their doctor's diagnosis and recommended treatment.  

But are e-visits as good as face-to-face consultation? A new study finds that they appear to result in decent diagnoses for common infections, while also saving time and money. The findings are in Archives of Internal Medicine. [Ateev Mehrotra et al, A Comparison of Care at E-Visits and Physician Office Visits for Sinusitis and Urinary Tract Infection]

Researchers analyzed some 5,000 doctor visits for sinus infections and 3,000 visits for urinary tract infection. Less than 10 percent of all visits were electronic. One possible e-visit drawback: doctors were more likely to prescribe antibiotics after an e-visit than a face-to-face. But patients with an e-visit had just about the same rate of follow up as those who had an office visit. Which suggests that there was not a higher rate of misdiagnosis or treatment failure online. E-visits were also cheaper.