Through its app, Fetch MD connects medical providers to patients experiencing minor ailments.
Through its app, Fetch MD connects medical providers to patients experiencing minor ailments. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

When it comes to health care and technology, many medical professionals say innovation in treatment has outpaced advances in the communications side of medicine.

FetchMD, a San Antonio-based health and technology company, aims to reconcile that divide by putting a modern-day twist on house calls via a mobile app.

“We realized that consumers have a difficult time getting access to fast, affordable, convenient care,” said Michael Zucker, founder and CEO of FetchMD’s parent company Ranger Health, which began facilitating in-home health care appointments in 2015.

FetchMD connects medical providers to patients experiencing minor ailments such as respiratory infections, sprains, rashes, viruses, and lacerations for a flat rate of $119. While the service does not accept medical insurance, it does accept payments from flexible spending accounts connected to medical insurance plans.

The company on Tuesday announced it will offer free prescription delivery for H-E-B pharmacy customers.

When it first launched, Ranger Health offered in-home services to people whose employer-based insurance partnered with the organization. The company rebranded as FetchMD in the fall of 2017, opening services to anyone in San Antonio after it experienced what Zucker called an “overwhelming demand” for on-call home health service.

Ranger Health CEO Michael Zucker Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The majority of in-home visits were requested to address low-acuity health care needs like the flu or needing stitches, Zucker said. FetchMD therefore focuses its in-home care on people in non-emergency situations, relieving them of clinic, emergency room, and primary care appointment wait times, with service scheduled at their convenience.

“Most of the time people know what’s wrong with them, whether it’s a pink eye, a cut finger, or needing a tetanus shot,” Zucker said. “These things become the hassle factor for health care when a doctor can’t see you for two days and [when] clinic wait times can be hours.”

Zucker likened FetchMD to services such as Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb: With a few taps on the mobile app, users can summon a provider to their home for a visit that will typically last around 20 minutes.

“People would love to have 20 minutes with their doctor of a medical provider,” Zucker said. “If you go into the office you’re lucky to get five.”

Dr. Fred Campbell, internal medicine physician and professor of medicine in the Joe R. & Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio, said that for minor conditions, such as a flu or virus, spending less than 10 minutes with one’s doctor makes sense, because treatment is typically routine and uncomplicated. He said the $119 price tag might dissuade someone with multiple family members from using the service, but that “young, healthy, and relatively affluent people” may benefit from the app and its convenience.

“The concept is a very good one,” Campbell said. “It’s just hard to say exactly who would be inclined [to pay] that kind of fee,” but in some instances it may end up costing a person significantly less than an urgent care clinic or emergency room, where prices often start at $150 and increase as with additional services.

Campbell said that few people who are healthy and not on monthly prescription medication need to have an ongoing relationship with a medical provider.

Zucker said FetchMD hopes to capture this population – “millennials who didn’t grow up with a doctor” – with an approach rooted in more than one growing trend in the health care industry.

For one, it enables nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants to step out of the rigid and often inflexible structure of an office setting and create a work schedule that is to their convenience. It also allows for more time spent delivering quality care to patients; in an office setting, providers may see up to 40 patients a day, causing them to spread themselves thin and potentially see their quality of care go down.

Campbell said the high number of patients doctors see in one day can be attributed to the shrinking number of primary care physicians nationwide. Utilizing nurse practitioners and physicians assistants more frequently, he said, helps increase the supply of practitioners and number of patients being seen, particularly when it comes to treating uncomplicated illnesses.

Another factor is the rise of alternatives to doctor’s office visits. Health care providers are increasing use of technology tools to provide services to patients, such as virtual appointments and consultations using video chat, and feedback on photos sent electronically.

This is in addition to the abundance of service locations, including free-standing emergency clinics, which Zucker said are the organization’s closest competition.

“We are not a primary-care substitute,” he said, noting that FetchMD’s services are not for people with chronic health conditions such as diabetes, cancer, or any issues that require long-term treatment. “We are here to address [ailments] which have a direct beginning and end.”

Much like FetchMD, Heal is a California-based startup delivering on-demand health care services to cities along the West Coast since 2015. Greg Drobnick, senior vice president for strategic initiatives with Heal, told the Rivard Report there has been little innovation on the communication side of medicine over time, with 70 percent of doctor appointments still made over the phone.

“[There has been] incredible innovation in terms of treatment and available drugs,” Drobnick said. “We saw an opportunity to bring some great innovation to the way people communicate,” eliminating the need for someone to pick up the phone, talk to a receptionist, and likely being put on hold before scheduling an appointment.

Drobnick said that what most attracts people to Heal is the experience of unrushed care typically not found in an office setting. Echoing Zucker, he said that the on-demand, in-home service improves the experience for both the consumer and provider because they have time to engage in a more meaningful interaction.

Unlike FetchMD, Heal accepts medical insurance, so the fee-for-service depends on a person’s copay; without insurance, each visit costs $99, with additional fees for labs and tests.

Zucker said that when FetchMD first started, targeted consumers included the mother of three who did not want to take all of her children to the doctor’s office, and the busy executive who refused to take time off from work for a wellness visit. Today, the company is geared toward anyone seeking convenient medical care and has provided services to thousands of consumers throughout the San Antonio area.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.