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The doctor will see you now via webcam, smartphone

WASHINGTON -- Mark Matulaitis holds out his arms so the Parkinson's specialist can check his tremors. But this is no doctor's office: Matulaitis sits in his rural home as a neurologist a few hundred kilometers away examines him via the camera in his laptop.

Welcome to the virtual house call, the latest twist on telemedicine. It's increasingly getting attention as a way to conveniently diagnose simple maladies, such as whether that runny nose and cough is a cold or the flu. One company even offers a smartphone app that lets tech-savvy consumers connect to a doctor for US$49 a visit.

Now patient groups and technology advocates are pushing to expand the digital care to people with complex chronic diseases that make a doctor's trip more than just an inconvenience.

“Why can't we provide care to people wherever they are?” asks Dr. Ray Dorsey, a neurologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center who is leading a national study of video visits for Parkinson's patients and sees broader appeal.

“Think of taking your mom with Alzheimer's to a big urban medical center. Just getting through the parking lot they're disoriented,” he adds. “That's the standard of care but is it what we should be doing?”

Among the hurdles: While Medicare covers some forms of telehealth, it doesn't typically pay for in-home video exams. Plus, doctors who practice by video-chat must be licensed in whatever states their long-distance patients live. Some states restrict the kind of care and prescribing available via telemedicine.

About 40 percent of Parkinson's patients don't see a specialist, in part because they live too far away, even though research suggests those who do fare better, according to the Parkinson's Action Network.

When Matulaitis first was diagnosed in 2011, his wife had to take a day off work to drive him more than two hours to a Parkinson's clinic. Once he was stabilized on medication, Dorsey enrolled man in a pilot study of video house calls. Set-up was simple: The doctor emailed a link to video software designed for patient privacy.

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This photo taken Thursday, May 8 shows Mark Matulaitis posing with his laptop that he uses for virtual house calls with his neurologist in his home in Salisbury, Maryland. (AP)

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