Are Online Clinics the Future of Medicine?

F. Mariam Zahedi, James R. Mueller Distinguished Scholar and Professor of information technology management in the Lubar School of Business

Are Online Clinics the Future of Medicine?

UWM and the Medical College of Wisconsin have developed a virtual medical office where avatars of patients and doctors meet online. With burgeoning demands on the health care system, this reduces costs and expands physician availability without compromising privacy, patient satisfaction or quality care.

What if you could go to the doctor’s office, get a diagnosis, and be treated, all without leaving your house?

Through a process developed at UWM and the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), avatars of real patients and doctors (aided by the patients’ medical records) meet at a virtual clinic.

F. Mariam Zahedi, professor of information technology management in UWM’s Lubar School of Business, and two colleagues first created a campus clinic in the virtual world Second Life. Student volunteers then tested it by becoming avatar “patients” while the researchers acted as avatar “physicians.”

With enthusiastic response from volunteers, Zahedi next partnered with MCW’s Reza Shaker, director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, a regional health collaboration.

Together, Zahedi and Shaker began testing the use of actual patients with real symptoms talking with a real physician-backed avatar. “Patients benefit by not being exposed to illnesses and having access to care, even when housebound,” says Zahedi. To maximize cost savings and efficiency without compromising privacy and quality, avatars with similar complaints met an avatar physician as a group.

The next phase of the project involves proprietary software that will enhance the exchange between patient and physician, making the online experience more like a face-to-face examination.

Zahedi’s approach is very user-centered. “We always have to examine how the patients react and how the technology fills their needs and wants.”