Tom McDougal intends on being there.
McDougal, 48, founded AlternaVisit, a Birmingham-based company, two years ago. AlternaVisit specializes in asynchronous telemedicine – where technology is employed to expand access to healthcare and doesn’t require the patient and physician to be in the same place at the same time.
“We developed a new type of medicine that creates efficiency with no scheduling difficulties,” he said.
A former 17-year hospital CEO, McDougal said this technology doesn’t cover chronic conditions, emergency situations or physical examinations. But it can cover coughs, colds and flu, infections, rashes and the like. If someone can take a picture of a rash and send it to a doctor, the doctor can call in a prescription or recommend coming in for an exam.
McDougal said most physician offices handle this kind of “virtual medicine” in a very inefficient way – over the telephone. Patients may want to avoid a long drive or hours in a waiting room. And physicians miss out on revenue.
One service AlternaVisit offers ensures physicians receive $35 for this kind of consultation, but only if the patient receives treatment. The patient avoids the long wait time, and the doctor can use their time more wisely.
This use of technology becomes more important in light of what medical professionals say is a potential shortage of physicians in the United States. According to a study this year from the Association of American Medical Colleges, physician demand will continue to grow faster than supply, leading to a predicted total physician shortfall of between 40,800 and 104,900 physicians by 2030. That includes everything from primary care to surgeons.
What’s more, some patients in rural areas are constrained by physical distance from healthcare.
“If a patient needs an appointment and has to wait a week, that patient may not receive care, which could lead to a worsening of the condition or they may never go,” McDougal said. “A shortage of physicians impacts access. The access issue is one that we’re really helping to alleviate.”
AlternaVisit has also embarked on a new venture, offering web services for physician websites. McDougal said this was a natural outgrowth of its telemedicine work.
“Our objective is to be a one-stop shop for any kind of digital presence that physicians who practice could have,” he said. “We realized in a hurry that if a practice did not have a strong, appropriate presence on the Internet, adding telemedicine would be a challenge.”
Practices have been slow creating websites, or web contractors aren’t creating the sites with the necessary content applications, he said. Earlier this summer, AlternaVisit launched a prototype.
Even though the future looks favorable for the services AlternaVisit offers, McDougal said the first year-and-a-half of the business was spent planning and designing its proprietary software and business model. That was key, he said.
“Just because you have a great idea doesn’t mean you have a great business model,” he said. “Just as much time needs to be invested in business model design on how to generate revenue, manage expenses and factor in growth and competition. If anyone is starting out, I would spend the same amount of time on the business model.”
Further, he said the healthcare industry means anyone in the business needs to be prepared for “a long decision cycle.” Patience is necessary.
“Very little happens fast,” he said, “particularly when you’re looking at a unique platform. You have to invest significant time in educating the market.”
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