The Medical Virtualist: Addressing New Challenges in Health Care

Clinician using a computer while talking to a patient with a headset.
Clinician using a computer while talking to a patient with a headset.
The medical virtualist could be an effective response to new health care challenges.

With the rapid rise in technologic advances and the increase in medical specialties in the last half-century, the creation of a new specialty — the medical virtualist — could be an effective response to new care challenges.

In an opinion piece published in JAMA,1 authors Michael Nochomovitz, MD, and Rahul Sharma, MD, MBA, of New York Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, New York, examined the way a medical virtualist specialty could tie in with currently existing telemedicine services.

Telemedicine is growing with the expansion of web-based services, social media, and the use of videoconferencing in daily communication. 

The global telehealth market is projected to grow at an annual compounded rate of 30% over the next 5 years to reach an estimated value of $12.1 billion. Although early telehealth focused on minor ailments such as coughs, colds, and rashes, it is now used in communicating imaging and laboratory results, changing medication, and managing more complex disease. According to one estimate,2 between 30% and 50% of healthcare visits could be done virtually.

“Digital advances within health care and patients acting more like consumers have resulted in more physicians and other clinicians delivering virtual care in almost every medicine discipline,” the authors wrote.

Medical virtualists would be physicians who spend the majority of their time caring for patients using a virtual medium. A professional consensus would be needed to establish a set of core competencies, and training would be necessary to develop techniques to achieve a good “webside” manner. The authors of the article contend that there could be a need for physicians across multiple disciplines to become full-time medical virtualists with subspecialty differentiation.

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Telemedicine will not replace the traditional clinical encounter, but it could enhance current practice. The authors argue that the curriculum for certification should include knowledge of legal and clinical limitations of virtual care, competencies in virtual examination using the patient or families, “virtual visit presence training,” inclusion of on-site clinical measurements, and continuing education.

The authors conclude that if technologic advances continue and if evidence demonstrates that the technology improves care and outcomes and reduces costs, medical virtualists will become an important piece of overall healthcare delivery in the future.


  1. Nochomovitz M, Sharma R. Is it time for a new medical specialty? The medical virtualist. JAMA. 2018;319:437-438.
  2. Ripton JT, Winkler CS. How telemedicine is transforming treatment in rural communities. Becker’s Hospital Review. April 8, 2016. Accessed February 16, 2018.

This article originally appeared on Medical Bag