Cutting Your Medical Bills via Smartphone

Dealing with your doctor and managing your everyday health by smartphone isn't just an emerging trend--it might help you maintain a healthier lifestyle and save money.

Many innovators think that the future of medicine lies in the smartphones, smart watches and tablet computers you carry around every day. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is driving innovators in healthcare and technology to develop apps and devices that offer greater access to healthcare services at a lower cost. It's called telehealth or telemedicine, referring to the increasing use of Internet-connected devices to communicate diseases, symptoms and other health data. From showing your doctor a cut or scratch on your arm to finding the cheapest price on a prescription while commuting, this new way of managing health is becoming a reality. In fact, the global telehealth market is expected to grow from $440.6 million in 2013 to $4.5 billion by 2018, according to Colorado-based research firm IHS.

So how could this new technology save you money? You've likely seen smartphone apps that help you track how much you eat or how much you walk each day. Some medical and technology experts believe that in the future you'll see downloadable apps that enable real-time cost comparison on prescriptions and procedures as well as ones that could enable physicians and other health professionals to accomplish remote examination and diagnostic procedures by smartphone.

Here's an overview of telemedicine categories that might save you money in the future:

Handheld physical activity and vitals tracking. While many major health systems and hospitals allow you to download apps to schedule appointments, see lab results and even communicate by email or text with your doctor, those offerings often have no diagnostic value...yet. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently released policy statements on what it calls "mobile medical apps" that will actually allow tracking of vital health data for direct interpretation by trained health professionals. But regulators appear to have plenty of work to do with regard to the effectiveness, safety and privacy issues associated with such future technology.

Medicine by GPS. Let's say you need to fill a prescription. Where is the cheapest place to buy it within a 10-mile radius? Using technology similar to the restaurant, movie and services-finding sites you probably use now, developers are considering similar models for medical and prescription pricing data that might save you money in real time.

Diagnosis by selfie. Someday, using your smartphone to take a selfie might improve your health. A new technology uses an algorithm to process your photo of a non-life-threatening injury or rash, evaluates it and texts back a diagnosis. Cuts, bruises and rashes might be early fodder for such visual-based diagnosis experiments; apps dealing with more serious illnesses and conditions will likely take longer to develop. But based on what developers come up with in the way of sensors to collect symptom- and condition-related health data in the future, maybe physicians on the other end of the line will one day have more to work with than a mere photo.

Virtual appointments. The move to Accountable Care Organizations (ACO)--unique groups of doctors, hospitals and other health care providers created by the ACA with the purpose of boosting care and cutting costs--is also expected to spur use of handheld devices to create 24/7, real-time communication between patients and practitioners. In a 2014 report, consulting firm Deloitte said that there could be 100 million health "eVisits" globally in the future, potentially saving over $5 billion in costs compared to traditional physician visits.

These are exciting developments. But as such solutions emerge, it's important to do some research before downloading. Ask yourself the following:
• Who made this app and what do its developers really know about my needs or condition?
• How do I double-check the particular information I'm receiving from this app to learn its accuracy?
• Are there any benefits associated with this app like spending points or related rewards, similar to the choice of a particular credit card?
• What about privacy? What's in the app's terms of use and privacy policy and how safe is the payment, prescription or medical data required to use the app?
• What does my primary care doctor or my insurer think about this app's safety, privacy and any potential effects on my insurance coverage?
• What does it really cost to use the app and how might it affect data charges on my smartphone or tablet bill?

Bottom line: Telemedicine--using smartphones, portable computers and tablets to evaluate and diagnose health conditions--is new today but might become routine tomorrow. Before you use any digital healthcare solution, check its privacy provisions and whether it could interfere with current medical advice or insurance coverage.

Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa's financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter:

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.