Say Aah into the Webcam

Visiting the doctor with a click of a mouse.

Illustration: Mike Austin

Feeling under the weather? Why drive to the doctor’s office and wait in a room with other potentially contagious individuals when you can have a doctor’s appointment in the comfort of your home? Since January, HMSA’s online care program has offered just this sort of service: a doctor’s visit without the visit.

Telehealth, or telemedicine, allows Hawaii residents—whether they are HMSA insured, uninsured, military or otherwise—to consult a physician either via the Web, instant messaging or over the phone. The first in the nation to implement an online care program, HMSA is hoping to reach patients throughout the state, especially those on the Neighbor Islands and in rural areas, by providing an alternative to office visits. 

“It’s been well received and we have patients calling in from all age groups and areas. You’re only a couple of key strokes away from talking to a physician,” says Dr. Patricia Avila, the medical director of HMSA’s online care program.

How It Works

•    To register, visit

•    Log in to chat with a doctor online or have a phone conversation (you must first give authorization for the physician to see your medical records).

•    Those insured with HMSA pay $10 for a 10-minute session. Those uninsured or with a different insurance provider pay $45. You can extend your session for an additional five minutes and pay $15 ($57.50 for nonmembers).

•    Online care is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week with minor system maintenance shutdowns twice a month.

•    HMSA pays physicians $25 for 10 minute sessions during normal business hours and $30 after hours.


The online care program already has more than 1,000 registered users and has around 140 participating physicians, from primary-care doctors, surgeons and dermatologists to gynecologists, anesthesiologists and psychiatrists. “It’s a good idea to register in advance,” says HMSA spokesperson, Laura Lott, “before you have something in your eye or have a fever.”

After logging on, a patient is allotted a 10-minute session with an appropriate physician (with a five minute extension). A doctor can even fax or call in a prescription to the patient’s nearest pharmacy. While not meant to be used if you are seriously ill or injured, patients can consult specialists for a variety of reasons: You can speak to a doctor about a cold, or if you have pink eye, a fever, or a rash, as well as to discuss symptoms you or your family members may be experiencing, whether they be physical or psychological.

“For us it’s all about access and getting people [treated], so this was just a real easy way to do that,” says Dr. Robert Sussman, the medical director of The Medical Corner, urgent-care clinics on Oahu.

Physicians are integrating online care into their practice in different ways. For example, some doctors will only see their preexisting patients, or use it to schedule face-to-face appointments, whereas others like Sussman are available as often as they can be.

Despite the medical advancements technology has allowed, both Avila and Sussman agree that the online care program is not meant to eliminate physical trips to the doctor’s office. “I don’t see it necessarily replacing face-to-face visits because at some point somebody’s got to do the rectal exam,” he laughs.