Healthcare Technology Featured Article

September 23, 2013

Doctor Punished for Using Skype to Treat Patients

Recently the Oklahoman news website reported a story that stated a Dr. Thomas Trow, practicing in Oklahoma, had been disciplined for treating his patients’ mental health issues via Skype.

Trow is accused of prescribing patients medication without physically having seen them. He explains that his nurse traveled to satellite clinics to meet the patients and present them to him via Skype. Trow stated "that he did not think he had to see patients in person since they were psychiatric patients.”

The complaint against Trow states that one of his patients overdosed three times in a six month period. "The patient known as R.C. died while under Trow’s care — as did two other patients during the same time — but investigators said Thursday that those deaths were not attributable to Trow,” reported.

Trow was placed on probation for two years and was ordered to complete a course on prescribing practices. This issue has brought to the forefront problems with the telehealth system. Telehealth is the use of technology to care for patients when they cannot be seen face to face.

Physicians are bound by medical regulations, and the use of Skype for patient care is not permitted in Oklahoma.

Skype technology is encrypted, which means that you cannot eavesdrop on a Skype call. This fact would appear to protect the patients’ privacy. The big question is: Can Skype be a legitimate substitute for in-person care, and if so under what circumstances?

Video appointments are a new type of care. Some studies suggest that these virtual visits can be useful, but evidence is not yet overwhelming. For some patients traveling to a doctor’s office can be stressful. Most doctors, however report that in persons visits are vital for true diagnosis or correct medication adjustments.

"The case seems to hinge on whether Dr. Trow prescribed sedatives for a patient that he had never met and if he did, was that an error in judgment?" Dr. Joseph C. Kvedar, founder and director of the Center for Connected Health at Partners HealthCare, wrote on his cHealth Blog.

"Of course, it’s not my place to decide. But the story does provide a nice backdrop to think about how technology is changing the way care is delivered and what your follow-up visit might look like in the near future. We have to do the studies, so don’t ask your doctor to Skype you just yet, but I’m optimistic that this technology will change health-care delivery for the better — and soon," Kvedar added.

Edited by Alisen Downey

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