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NEW YORK (MainStreet)—Once reserved for the business elite, virtual doctor visits are becoming a matter of convenience to many families with moderate incomes as companies that provide the service elbow their way into what overnight seems to have become a crowded marketplace.

The reason for the surge may be patients' inability to have direct access to doctors by phone, the often routine directive to make an appointment for an office visit when patients call in with common problems and the high cost of co-payments and co-insurance and emergency room visits, not to mention the convenience of seeing a doctor anytime, anywhere using a phone or computer.

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Doctors who make virtual visits can handle routine, non-emergency problems, such as colds and hay fever, that would otherwise require an office appointment. They can prescribe many medications but do not prescribe drugs that can be abused.

According to a recently released survey by the communications networking giant Cisco, almost three-quarters -- 74% -- of 1,547 consumers and healthcare industry workers across 10 countries would choose telemedicine, given a choice between virtual access and in-person contact.

Although these telemedicine concierge services aren't intended to be a substitute for health insurance, Abdul Massaquoi subscribed to 247MedPlan to have some form of medical coverage for his young family after being discharged from the military.

"About a month after getting [out of] the service, my daughter who is 4 came down with a really bad flu bug, or so my wife and I thought," he says. Over-the-counter children's cold medicines did not work, so after two days, he called 247MedPlan. Massaquoi says that a doctor called him back about 15 minutes later and spoke with his wife for about 1/2 hour before determining that their daughter did not have the flu but rather a minor respiratory infection. He prescribed an antibiotic, which saved the Massaquoi family a trip to the emergency room and hundreds of dollars.

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The 247MedPlan service costs about $1 a day for an unlimited number of virtual visits for an entire family. (Other services charge similarly, although at least one service charges for each virtual visit and limits the time the patient spends with the doctor before the patient incurs additional charges.)

The time to access a doctor generally runs about 25 minutes, says Joe Irrera, chief marketing officer for 247MedPlan. Their patient electronic health records are HIPPA compliant and their doctors are board certified, he says.

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Most, but not all, of the services provide access to doctors around the clock.

In addition to 247MedPlan, there's CADRPlus, Teladoc, NowClinic and CareSimple, among others.

But before signing onto one of these services, ask yourself what value you're getting, says Carmen Balber, executive director of Consumer Watchdog -- how often will you actually use it, and how does the cost of the policy compare with what you would have to pay for an office visit or two? She also notes that this type of service is not comparable to a concierge practice, because the doctor is not following your case and working with you long term. Further, she wonders who these doctors are and why they aren't working in a practice.

Irrera says that many of 247MedPlan's doctors are in private practice and provide their services through 247MedPlan during their off hours. He also says that 247MedPlan's list of doctors is proprietary information, although the doctors identify themselves to patients when they call, and that the doctors' backgrounds are checked through reputable organizations.

--Written for MainStreet for S.Z. Berg, author of College on the Cheap.