5 Things You Need to Know About Virtual Dermatologists

Natasha Burton
Janis Litavnieks / Getty Images

Janis Litavnieks / Getty Images

We now live in a time when we can do just about anything from our phones, like order pizza, pay for shoes (and pay our credit card bills), or even try out new hairstyles.

But even things that you might think have to be done IRL are going virtual—even doctor’s appointments. That’s right—now, you can actually see a dermatologist right from your computer or phone. Virtual doctors, eMDs, telemedicine—whatever you want to call these new platforms—are on the rise.

Want to try out this new technology for yourself? Before you log on to visit a virtual derm, here’s what you should know about seeing the skin doctor digitally instead of face-to-face.

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1. They’re awesome for diagnosing acne.
Over 60 million Americans are dealing with acne, which can be easily diagnosed and treated without having to schlep to a dermatologist’s office—or sit on a waiting list for months in order to get a treatment plan in place.

“I suffered from acne as a teenager, and I remember having to skip school, my mom had to miss work, drive across town only to sit in the waiting room before seeing the dermatologist for all of five minutes,” says Ben Holber, co-founder of YoDerm, a mobile telemedicine platform that focuses on treating acne. “Ultimately, by bringing the consultation online, now everyone can have personalized advice, comprehensive treatment, and the ongoing support necessary to get clear skin.”

YoDerm, and other virtual dermatology platforms, allow acne sufferers to get the advice and prescriptions they need without having to leave home—meaning that people who previously didn’t have easy access to a derm can get help and in-person docs have more time to see people with more pressing conditions.

2. They make it easy to get an appointment for non-urgent conditions and diagnoses.
Acne isn’t the only skin ailment that virtual dermatologists can easily diagnose. Conditions like eczema or allergic reactions that require a quick response (and need immediate treatment) are worth diagnosing over a virtual platform, says dermatologist Dr. Julie Russak.

Plus, getting an appointment online can be far easier, for doctors and patients, than scheduling something in person. Russak says that telemedicine works well if you already have a standing relationship with your doctor and just want to check in, if you have a recurring skin condition that needs to be monitored every so often, or if you had cosmetic treatment that requires a visual follow-up. Another instance you might use this service is if you cannot make it into the office because you are away on business or vacation and you need to touch base with your doctor.

3. They can’t diagnose certain conditions—especially cancer.
There are certain things that cannot be done via the virtual world, such as a skin-cancer screenings or biopsies.

“When there are suspicions of skin cancer, no one will ever fault the individual for having the lesion examined live,” says dermatologist Dr. Adam Friedman. “In fact, missing skin cancer —especially melanoma—due to technical difficulties is unacceptable. When caught early, it can be curable.” Also, any kind of eruption or growth will need to be looked at in person since these often require a skin biopsy to make the correct diagnosis, he adds.

So if you have an abnormal mole or growth, definitely make an in-person appointment ASAP.

4. They’re not completely foolproof.
While dermatology is very visual—hence why telemedicine works in this field—dermatologist Dr. Michael Lin says that the type of virtual communication can affect the accuracy of these services, which can range from text-based forums to ones that are more photo or video-based. “It is much harder to diagnose skin conditions over media versus having the patient in the office,” he explains. “Lighting can make things difficult to see because of shadows and contours.”

For more serious conditions, there’s also a higher chance for error. “I would be concerned that any virtual dermatology app could lead to misdiagnosis, no matter how high the resolution of the pictures captured, and that it could lead to excessive amounts of visits to dermatologists who respond to them,” says dermatologist Dr. Diana De Fiori of the Rosacea Treatment Clinic in Melbourne, Australia.

5. They shouldn’t completely replace seeing a derm in person.
While virtual derms are great in certain circumstances (like diagnosing and treating acne), they’re not going to replace in-person skin assessments completely because dermatology is actually a very physically interactive field, Russak says.

“As a dermatologist, I rely on my eyes, magnification tools, sense of touch and evaluation devices, such as The MelaFind and dermatoscope, to diagnose properly,” she explains. “I [look at] texture—if skin is dry, scaly or feels like it has some substance underneath it could warrant an entirely different diagnosis. For all those reasons, seeing a doctor in person is necessary.”

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