It’s 4 a.m. — is your doctor online?

At about 7 p.m. last night, I went out to eat by myself at a watering hole (which is part of a large national chain). As I started to walk out to my car, I knew something was not right. I started sweating profusely, all of a sudden.

Having experienced food poisoning before, it didn’t take long for me to match the symptoms to the cause. But I went home and took it easy for a few hours hoping it was minor enough that my body could just fight it off.

I was wrong…so very wrong. I’ll spare you all the gory details, but this turned out to be the worst bout of food poisoning I have ever experienced. From 11 p.m. until 5 a.m., I was in a world of hurt.

At about 4 a.m., I decided I wanted to seek medical treatment. But all of the urgent cares were closed, and going to the emergency room seemed like overkill. Not to mention the very real possibility that driving myself anywhere was not the greatest idea.

Fortunately I had heard about some phone-based services available around the clock so I would at least know what to do next.

I didn’t know what number to call, so I logged into my Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield health insurance policy’s website and discovered that, in addition to the 24-hour nurse phone line, they also had a tool called Live Health Online that enabled me to have a teleconference with a physician for $49.00. I gave them all of my insurance information to file the claim and also my health savings account card information to pay the fee (since I had not reached my deductible yet for the year).

This was perfect for me and this particular situation. I filled out the paperwork and got on the conference. I was even able to specify a nearby 24-hour pharmacy in the event that the physician would prescribe something for me. I had to wait for about 5-10 minutes, and then I was able to have a video chat with a physician. She seemed a bit groggy herself, but it was 4 a.m. so that was understandable.

We did have an audio glitch (probably on my end) which made her unable to hear me, so she had to call me…but I could still see her on the screen. In the end, she told me all I could do was replenish the electrolytes I had lost with sports drinks.

If I found myself in that situation again, would I use the service? You bet. And not just at 4 a.m. I wouldn’t recommend it as a substitute for ordinary physician visits, but it’s nice to have access to an urgent care facility on your schedule, from your couch.

In broader terms, telehealth is an exciting new trend that uses the Internet to connect physicians with patients. It’s not only helpful in a situation like mine.

Suppose you live in a small town, and you need to see a specialist…perhaps the closest specialist in that field works at a hospital in the big city 100 miles away. If the specialist has a relationship with the little satellite clinic in town, then that specialist can examine you with help from the nursing staff at the local clinic and/or by controlling some instruments remotely. It saves the patient (or the specialist) an inefficient 100-mile trip unless it’s really necessary to have the visit in person.

Telehealth technology is a huge boon for rural health, but as I experienced last night, there are lots of useful applications for it.