Can you save money with a virtual GP?
Vicki Notaro finds out more about the repeat prescription and virtual consultation services available thanks to the internet
There are so many ways the World Wide Web helps us as consumers; from comparison websites to find cheaper goods and services to snapping up bargains on auction sites and even bagging a fabulous holiday with a sizeable discount, there's no doubt that the internet saves us time and money. But would you be willing to trust the online world when it comes to your your health and wellbeing?
One of the latest trends in Ireland is using the internet to manage and monitor our bodies. Online personal training has seen a boom, and many pharmacies are taking their wares online.
This year Boots even launched an app to make shopping for your non-medical chemist necessities easier. But the most intriguing new trend is that of the online doctor.
Virtual GP sites are springing up all over the web offering consultation and repeat prescription services. Designed for both the time and cash-poor among us, you can see a doctor from just about anywhere for less than half the price of a GP's visit.
Or if it's just a refill of regular medication you need, all you need to do is click - or so we're led to believe. However as with most things that sound too good to be true, these services are restricted by regulations and are currently limited to giving prescriptions for only a small number of conditions. Still, in certain situations, the benefits to the consumer can be great.
MyClinic.ie is an Irish-owned website run by three doctors. Jim Ryan, Terry Deeny (of RTÉ's Doctors on Call) and Daniel Clear initially had the idea for such a site when they were studying at UCD together six years ago, but it was only in February of this year that their project was fully realised.
"MyClinic.ie has two main functions, both priced at €25," explains Jim. "The consultation service allows patients to send in queries to us. From detailed questions to images or documentation for interpretation, they give us as much information as possible. We review the questions and try to come back with a detailed answer in response. We can ask them more questions via secure messaging and communicate with them in real-time."
Jim says this part of the service is for routine or non-emergency issues, particularly those of a sensitive nature like erectile dysfunction or a sexually transmitted infection. "Men are half as likely as women to actually go to the doctor, so this gives them a different means of communication."
The other prong of the business is a repeat prescription service. "Once a patient is established on medication and hasn't had any issues with it, we can provide a prescription so they can get their medicine supply renewed without having to always visit the doctor." This includes the medication for ED, acne treatment and also things like the Pill.
Jim is keen to point out that the service doesn't replace a traditional doctor's, and that blood pressure and the likes should be monitored. However, considering a visit to the doctor's will set you back at least €50 and often more, using a service like this certainly saves money and time when it comes to renewing a prescription for the likes of oral contraceptives.
"Time is important to our clients. It's not just about saving money, they really find that it can be difficult to get time off work to go to the doctor. As this service is available from 8am to midnight, and you can still use it during the night with a slight delay, it means that they'll get the prescription in the post the next day. Our patients are busy people on the move, using mobile devices, and they don't mind doing a little bit of the doctor's work themselves to reap the benefits."
DrEd.com is a UK-based website that's treating patients in this country as well as Germany, Switzerland and Austria. It works similarly to MyClinic, although doesn't have the chat or image-sharing functions of the Irish website, and its doctors are based in England.
It's a cheaper service at €20, and caters for a wider number of conditions including asthma inhalers and treatment for high cholesterol.
Jessica Moneley has been using the website's service in recent months. "I discovered Dr Ed through an ad I saw on Facebook. As a busy mum with a job and also studying at college, I just thought it was a very convenient way of buying repeat prescriptions.
"The ease of ordering a prescription online was the biggest draw for me, although paying €20 as opposed to €55 for a GP visit is also a big plus."
Jessica uses DrEd.com to buy her contraceptive pill. "The site is very user-friendly, I find you get more information and insight into the range of contraceptives available. There's an excellent medical information section detailing the contents, how to take the medication and the possible side-effects of each pill.
"I found that section particularly useful because I didn't want to take a tablet that would make me drowsy or nauseous. I was able to select a pill that didn't have those particular side-effects.
"I think the massive saving in time and money is the biggest plus , but I'm also very impressed with the amount of information available on the various medications you are taking. I've already recommended Dr Ed to a lot of my friends, and they're delighted with the service."
The beauty of these sites is that real doctors are the ones vetting the questionnaires you submit. It's not just a case of filling out a form and having a prescription handed over. If the doctor sees any reason why you shouldn't receive the requested medication, they won't prescribe it.
In the interest of clarity as to what's available, we broke down four of Ireland's most popular online doctor services.
Q Consultation and repeat prescription services, messaging option to communicate in real-time
Q €25 for consultation or repeat prescriptions
Q Irish-owned, doctors based here
Q Medications available for erectile dysfunction, STIs, anti-malaria, contraceptive pill, weight loss, acne, cystitis, thrush (all of these are available from each site mentioned)
Q Opportunity to talk to a real doctor about the things that concern you via virtual consultation.
Q Prescription service
Q €20 per prescription, vetted by doctors based in the UK
Q Treatments for asthma, migraine, cholesterol and more, as well as those covered by MyClinic
Q Can fax prescriptions directly to a nearby pharmacy if urgent
Q Irish-based doctors, 30,000 Irish customers
Q €25 fee for prescriptions with free delivery to your door (although you have to go to the chemist to fill it)
Q STI home kit for men and women, also treat asthma and provide medication to quit smoking
Q €25 for prescription service
Q Video consultation by appointment, 7 days a week at €28
Q Offers pill to delay periods and there's a hair loss treatment available for men
Q Irish-owned and operated